Lives of the fellows

William Evans

b.2 November 1895 d.20 September 1988
MRCS LRCP(1924) MB BS Lond(1925) MD(1927) MRCP(1928) FRCP(1935) DSc(1944) Hon DSc Wales(1961)

William Evans was born in an isolated farmhouse near Tregaron, Cardiganshire, where he died, aged 92. His father farmed surrounding land and his mother was the daughter of a neighbouring farmer. He grew up in a strictly religious atmosphere, characteristic of the time and place, which together with the serenity of the environment had a profound influence on his attitude to the coming war. to his career in medicine and his later interpersonal relations. After attending the local county school, where he matriculated, he worked in a bank, whilst still considering a possible career in the church. As for countless other young men of his time, the advent of the first world war changed everything. He left the bank to join the Army, and was trained in the Buffs before being commissioned in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Although he served in the Ypres salient and at Passchendaele, he survived unscathed - unlike the majority of his battalion: He was demobilized in September 1919. Attracted by Army discipline, he thought of making a career in the regular Army but eventually opted for medicine, being greatly influenced by the contact he had had with human trauma and by a near relative in the profession.

A brief period of premedical studies was followed by admission to the London Hospital medical college in September 1920, where he graduated five years later. After an appointment in the pathology department he became house physician to John Parkinson, later Sir John [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.443], to whose inspiration he attributed his future career as a clinician and researcher. A short period as assistant director of the medical unit was followed by his appointment as assistant physician to the cardiac department in 1936. Thereafter his fruitful collaboration with his mentor and revered senior colleague led to the pre-eminence of the cardiac department in the London. He became physician in charge of the department on Parkinson’s retirement in 1948. Four years before this, during the war, he had been appointed to the staff of the National Heart Hospital.

Affectionately known as ‘Willie’ to all and sundry because he was always pleasant, affable, rarely ruffled and rather portly, he retained throughout his long life a special liking for rice pudding. He was, however, something of an enigma; the real man was difficult to know, he was close hauled and few if any of his closest colleagues knew him well.

Willie was fond of the pen and he used it very well. His writings included nigh on 100 medical papers, five books on cardiology, an autobiography with the unattractive and uncharacteristic title Journey to Harley Street, London, Rendel, 1968, and the Diary of a Welsh Swagman 1869-1894, by Joseph Jenkins, abridged and notated by William Evans, London, Macmillan, 1975, which was appreciated by Australian historians, together with several poems.

William Evans was a memorable teacher, almost a preacher, dogmatic, lyrical at times, but there was always much pithy common sense. Thus his lectures had a great appeal for the majority but the absence of uncertainty, the tendency to reject the rational and the dilution of basic science led to some scepticism among the more academic of his listeners. His investigations in cardiology were numerous and recorded in many papers. His description of the anatomy of coarctation of the aorta, his pioneering contribution to the use of controls in drug trials, and some of his early studies on electrocardiography, together with the first sound description of ‘familial cardiomegaly’ were the most important. Although the possessor of a DSc - rather rare among clinicians - he was not the most scientific of men, for his thinking was more intuitive, instinctive and empirical rather than deductive and rational.

He was a great advocate of specialization in medicine and his chosen subject gained thereby. Not surprisingly therefore he was one of the architects of the British Heart Foundation, and his efforts also led to the foundation of the Society of Cardiological Technicians, of which he became the first president. He was perhaps at his best as a doctor for he was caring, conscientious and straightforward. Patients loved him, and all his juniors liked him. He had a sense of humour which was never misplaced.

On retirement he returned to the Wales he loved. The Principality reciprocated by making him High Sheriff of Cardigan and an Honorary Druid. He placed both of these honours above the legion of professional ones which came his way. He was not the most eminent cardiologist of his time but was one of the most unusual, well known and well liked. In retrospect, medicine in general and cardiology in particular seemed to be only an interlude, albeit an absorbing and exciting one, which occurred between childhood in the Teify Valley, overlooked by the Cambrian hills, and his return to the same unchanged scene to pass the 25 years of his retirement.

He had married Christina Downie, a nursing sister at the London Hospital, and daughter of John Downie, an engineer, in 1936. There were no children of the marriage and Christina died in 1964. William retired to a little house he had built in the corner of a field of his old home, continuing his interest in farming by helping his niece, Frances, to run the home farm. He was also a keen fisherman, and a conscientious gardener.

W Brigden

[Brit med J, 1988,297,913-14,1040; Lancet, 1988,2,859,1376; The Times 22 Sept 1988; The Independent 24 Sept 1988; The Guardian 28 Sept 1988; The Times 15 May 1963; The Lond Hosp Gaz Mar 1961,64(1),6;May 1961,64(2),39-40]

(Volume VIII, page 146)

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