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Biographical entry Williams, Richard Athelstan (1924 - 2016)

BA Cambridge 1947; MRCS LRCP 1950; MB BChir 1950; DLO 1955; FRCS 1957; FRCS Edin 1957.

10 October 1924
17 August 2016
ENT surgeon and General surgeon


Dick Williams was a consultant ENT surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital, London. He was born in London on 10 October 1924 to General Sir Guy Charles Williams and Ruth Eleanor Williams (née Coode), the younger of two sons. His father was a professional soldier, having served with distinction in the First World War. Dick joined his parents in India in 1930, where he was looked after by a local nanny; his best friend was his pet crane. After attending boarding pre-prep and preparatory schools in the UK, he went to Marlborough. His parents lived in Sevenoaks, where the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent was the next door neighbour and General (later Field Marshal) B L Montgomery (Monty) came to stay after his wife died.

After Marlborough, he entered Clare College, Cambridge to read medicine. A request to leave to go into the Army was refused by his tutor and, at the end of the first term, he deliberately failed all his examinations and was sent down. He was soon in the Army and, after passing out as a second lieutenant, he wrote to his father's friend, Monty, and was given a special posting to France rather than to the Far East. He joined the Royal Artillery and advanced through France participating in operation Market Garden. After the Ardennes counter offensive, Montgomery and General Eisenhower visited his unit. Monty emerged from the staff car and asked for Dick Williams, the most junior officer present. The corps commanders were incandescent, but Dick was fortunately promoted to forward observation officer and was in the first Bren gun carrier to cross the Rhine on a portable Bailey bridge. Whilst in North Western Germany, he was ordered to take two 25 pounder field guns to fire red smoke shells to mark a RAF target. Entering a large field, he came under heavy machine gunfire, which killed six of his eight-man detachment. Dick and his driver, who was subsequently killed, fired two high explosive rounds at very short range, killing eight enemy soldiers and neutralising their position. He received a number of bullet wounds to his leg, sustaining a fractured femur and temporary paralysis. He was captured, operated upon by a German surgeon and eventually repatriated to a military hospital in Cambridge, where he was treated with penicillin, which probably saved his leg. There being no surviving witnesses to this action, he was not decorated but was mentioned in despatches.

In hospital, his old tutor fortunately failed to recognise him and he managed to restart his studies in medicine, qualifying in 1950. After graduate training in ENT surgery at the Westminster, Bristol and the Middlesex hospitals, he was appointed in 1962 to the consultant staff of the Middlesex Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital at Welwyn Garden City. He was also a consultant to King Edward VII's Hospital for Officers and honorary consultant otolaryngologist to the Army. He served as a member of the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons, and the cases committee and council of the Medical Protection Society. He succeeded Sir Douglas Ranger as director of the Ferens Institute at the Middlesex Hospital, where Charles Skinner Hallpike and Margaret Dix had earlier described the pathology of Ménière's disease and Keith Bosher was researching the electrochemistry of the endolymph.

With Margaret Snelling, he set up a combined ENT/radiotherapy clinic, a new idea at the time with weekly teaching sessions seeing all new patients referred to both departments. He developed an interest in hypophysectomy and for some years operated on cases of carcinoma of the breast and prostate before the era of hormone treatment and chemotherapy. Finally, trusted by John Nabarro to remove pituitary tumours, he operated on hundreds of cases of secreting and non-functioning tumours, including children with non-pneumatised sphenoids, improved the existing instrumentation for the transsphenoidal approach, and lectured and published widely in this field.

A self-effacing man, he was much in demand, but declined high office in his specialty. He was a talented surgeon and patient teacher, but on occasions medical students failed to understand his dry wit or acerbic remarks. He trained a large cohort of senior registrars who were grateful for his wisdom and unfailing support. His genial kindness emerged with acquaintance.

He married Sheelagh Mary Rainsford, a Middlesex physiotherapist, in 1959 and they had two daughters, Sally Ruth and Rebecca Jane, and five grandchildren (Thomas, James, Connie, Laura and George). They divorced in 1984. He enjoyed travelling in Europe, USA, the Far East and Australasia, where he had many friends. He played golf extremely well with antiquated clubs and also enjoyed water sports during his annual holiday in Greece. At the age of 59 he learnt to fly in upstate New York and piloted himself to JFK Airport for the commercial flight home. A skilled pilot, he kept a Grumman AA5 at Panshanger Aerodrome and regularly flew to Europe to attend meetings of his travelling club. His enthusiasm for aviation continued after his licence was withdrawn due to cardiac disease and he lived with a pacemaker for over 20 years.

After retirement, he settled in Goring-on-Thames, where he made new friends and was active in the local photographic society and the village hall committee. He became a proficient bridge player and travelled on ice-breakers to both the Arctic and Antarctic. His penchant for the latest technology did not diminish and he continued to enjoy sporty cars and gadgets. He died suddenly at home on 13 August 2016. He was 91.

Malcolm Keene

Sources used to compile this entry: [Personal knowledge and information from R A Williams and Sally Clough].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England