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Biographical entry Wilson, David Hedley (1928 - 2015)

MB ChB Leeds 1951; DTM Antwerp 1954; FRCS Edin 1964; Hon FACEP 1986; FRCS 1988; Hon FACEM 1992; MFAEM 1993.

5 October 1928
4 October 2015
Accident and emergency surgeon, Missionary and Tropical medicine specialist


David Hedley Wilson was a consultant surgeon in the accident and emergency department, Leeds General Infirmary. He was born in Leeds on 5 October 1928, the son of Herbert Wilson and Phyllis Wilson née Hield. His grandfather had been a master grocer and his father, who served in the First World War, returned to join the business; however, sadly, this collapsed in the 1930s. At the age of eight, David decided that, despite the family being poor, he was going to be a missionary doctor. He was educated at Roundhay School in Leeds. At the age of 15 he met his wife to be and a year later he won a scholarship to study medicine at Leeds University, living at Rawdon Theological College. As well as studying, he loved sport and was the reserve for the 400 metres at the 1948 Olympics.

He qualified in 1951 and married Robina McKenzie Simpson in July 1953; so started a relationship that lasted 40 years. After posts in surgery, casualty and obstetrics in Leeds, he took the diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene in Antwerp in 1954.

On his 26th birthday, David and Robina sailed with their young baby girl Pamela to Pimu in the Belgian Congo. Their location was a very isolated hospital in the heart of the rain forest. He stayed in the Congo from 1954 to 1968, eventually moving south to a large mission hospital near the Angolan border at Kimpese. On his first period back at home in 1958, he felt the need to train in orthopaedics. In his work in Africa he was dealing with much disability from poliomyelitis and leprosy. He did this training at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore.

On his return to the Congo, he developed a limb fitting centre, then the only one in Central Africa. During the Congo uprising following independence, Robina returned with the children to the UK and David stayed caring for the patients at Kimpese. During this time, he treated many horrific injuries owing to the civil war.

On returning to the UK in 1961, David studied for his FRCS. In 1964 he gained the Edinburgh FRCS and later, in 1988, gained his FRCS from the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

The family returned to the Congo in 1964 and stayed until 1968. During this time, he became a visiting lecturer at the newly formed National University in Kinshasa and medical director of the Institut Médical Evangélique at Kimpese. They now had four children - Pamela, Gerard, John and Christine.

In 1968 they returned permanently to the UK and he held registrar posts in orthopaedics in Yorkshire. In 1970 he was appointed as a consultant in accident and emergency medicine at the General Infirmary at Leeds. During the subsequent years, he pioneered the growth of the specialty of accident and emergency medicine, seeking to establish it as a specialty with its own consultants. He wrote textbooks and developed patterns of training throughout the UK. He advised and lectured in Australasia and America, where he was awarded honorary fellowships. He also lectured in Canada and Europe. At this time, he was conducting research in spinal nerve regeneration and the effectiveness of Diapulse (electromagnetic therapy) in the healing of damaged tissues and nerves. He campaigned for the use of seat belts and against drink-driving. He also oversaw the introduction of computerised records in the accident and emergency department at Leeds in 1974.

Paul, born in Leeds, completed the family in 1968.

David was a committee man! He sat on various national committees and became an examiner for the FRCS (accident and emergency surgery) from 1982 to 1990 in Edinburgh. During this period, he represented the specialty of accident and emergency surgery on the council of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 1986 he played a leading role in the organisation of the first International Conference of Emergency Medicine in London.

He was appointed postgraduate dean of medical education at the University of Leeds in 1986, becoming chairman in 1989 and also represented the university on the General Medical Council. In 1990 he was appointed to the chief medical officer's Forum on Education and Training in the Health Service.

Sadly, after celebrating 40 years of married life, Robina died of carcinoma of the stomach in 1992. David took retirement to care for her, living at that time in Harrogate.

In 1994 he married Susan Evans, a nurse who had also worked in the Congo. They married on 16 April 1994 and David moved to live near Presteigne, mid Wales. He continued to be guided by his Christian faith, maintaining an interest in the church and serving as secretary in the local Baptist Church. He became president of the Baptist Union of Wales and of the Baptist Missionary Society. His love of committees and organisation continued well into his retirement. He was privileged to be one of the founding members of the College of Emergency Medicine and attended the inaugural ceremony officiated by Princess Anne in 2008; the college later became the Royal College in 2015.

In 2004 his autobiography Doctor at the cutting edge (Houghton Regis, Bound Biographies) was published.

He loved walking and gardening, enjoying the beauty of his home and life in mid Wales, although he was always proud to be called a Yorkshire man.

Sadly, David developed vascular dementia and over a five-year period there was a slow decline; he was cared for in his home until he died on 4 October 2015, just two hours short of his 87th birthday.

David was a visionary, always challenging the status quo and seeking better ways of doing things. He will be remembered for his contribution to changing the face of accident and emergency medicine, his Christian service in the UK and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and for his diplomacy in committees.

Susan Wilson

Sources used to compile this entry: [Personal knowledge; Wilson, DH. Doctor at the cutting edge Houghton Regis, Bound Biographies, 2004].

Thye Royal College of Surgeons of England