Lives of the fellows

William Sydney Charles Copeman

b.29 July 1900 d.24 November 1970
CBE(1964) OBE(1945) TD(1948) MRCS LRCP(1924) MB BChir Cantab(1925) MRCP(1926) MD(1936) FRCP(1937) JP Lond(1950-62)

Will Copeman, internationally known as a pioneer of rheumatology, with a charming and generous nature and a tall distinguished presence, was a man who never spared himself in his efforts to promote unselfishly his main interests: the emergence of rheumatology as a speciality within the field of general medicine, and the furtherance of curiosity in medical history within the profession. With a flair for gaining friendship he was universally popular with his contemporaries, admired by his younger colleagues, and his patients were devoted to him.

He was the eldest son of S. Monckton Copeman, MD, FRCP, FRS, and Ethel Margaret, daughter of Sir William Boord Bt, MP, (pps to Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli)). Born at Wakehurst Place, Ardingly, Sussex, he was educated at Lancing College, Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, where he rowed in the trial eights, and St. Thomas’s Hospital where he won the Anderson Prize in Physiology, qualifying in 1924. After house appointments at St. Thomas’s Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, St. Mary’s Hospital and the West London Hospital, Copeman worked at the Sorbonne in Paris as ‘assistant étranger’. After appointment as Physician to the Children’s Department at the West London Hospital, he was appointed in 1937 Physician to the Rheumatism Department at the same hospital and began his life’s work in this speciality. He was also Physician to the British Red Cross Rheumatism Clinic at Peto Place, later added to the Middlesex Hospital, and to the St. John and St. Elizabeth Hospital. During the First World War he was a Second Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards and in the Second he was Lieutenant Colonel RAMC, serving in the Middle East, as Medical Adviser Malta Command, and in Germany. Twice mentioned in Despatches he awarded the OBE (Mil.) in 1945.

A founder-member of the Heberden Society in 1937, he was awarded the Heberden Medal in 1939, was President in 1949-50 and Honorary Librarian from then until his death.

Recognizing the rheumatic diseases as a principal cause of disability and unhappiness, he played a major part in promoting research and in the development of rheumatology as a speciality. He was the leader in the growth of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, first as Secretary under Lord Horder and later as President. In this capacity he travelled widely, encouraging young physicians to take an interest in the subject, and as Editor of the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases and by his Text Book of the Rheumatic Diseases made sure that the speciality maintained a high standard of research and teaching.

He took an active part in the affairs of the College, being Councillor 1955-58, Fitzpatrick Lecturer 1958 and 1959, member of the Library Committee 1958-60 and also of the Committee to revise the Bye-Laws of Customs of the College. He was Secretary of the College Committee on Chronic Rheumatic Diseases 1935-37 and Chairman thereafter. In 1969 he was elected a Vice-President of the College. A Hunterian Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1949, he delivered the Thomas Vicary Lecture in 1963.

Another of his great interests was the Society of Apothecaries, which he served as Master, and he was on the Court for many years. From this and from his family link with a Tudor doctor, Andrew Boorde, sprang his interest in the history of medicine. He played a big part in the foundation of the Faculty of the History of Medicine and Pharmacy and later of the British Society for the History of Medicine, of which he was President from 1967-1969. As Visiting Lecturer at the University of California 1962, Pemberton Orator at the College of Physicians and Surgeons Philadelphia 1963, and Woodrow Lecturer at Yale, he achieved a second career as a medical historian and was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of the History of Medicine. As Lecturer in this subject at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School he was able to interest many students in this facet of medicine.

From the Rheumatism Department at the West London Hospital he published a series of papers on the use of cortisone and ACTH in rheumatoid arthritis, and he was Chairman of the MRC Steroid Committee in 1950. He was the first to describe rheumatoid arthritis of the cryco-arytenoid joints, and fat micro-herniation as a cause of non-articular rheumatism. Thanks to a magnificent gift from Mathilda and Terence Kennedy to the Charing Cross Group of Hospitals, Copeman was able to plan the foundation of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, opened in 1966, and served as its Chairman from 1967 until his death.

His upright figure and his natural warmth and friendliness made him a welcome participant at international meetings and he was President of the British Branch and Past President of the European Ligue Contre le Rheumatisme. He delivered the Van Breeman Oration in 1964 and was an Honorary Member of the American, French, Spanish, Argentinian, Brazilian, Norwegian, Danish and Dutch Rheumatism Societies and Associations.

In his later years he spent much of his spare time writing and had previously enjoyed shooting, painting and travelling. In 1930 he married Helen, daughter of William Bourne, the founder of Bourne and Hollingsworth, of Garston Manor, Herts, and had one son, P W Monckton Copeman, FRCP, Consultant Dermatologist to the Westminster Hospital, and two daughters. In his busy public life Copeman had the support of an unusually devoted family.

OA Savage

[, 1970, 4, 625, 809; Lancet, 1970, 2, 1200; Times, 26 Nov, 2 Dec 1970 and 15 Jan 1971; Daily Telegraph, 26 Nov 1970 and 15 Jan 1971; Med. Hist. 1971, 15, 96; EULAR Bulletin, 1974, 3, 118-9; Charing Cross Hosp. Gazette, 1971, 68; Middlesex Hosp. J., 1971, 71]

(Volume VI, page 120)

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