Lives of the fellows

William John Strachan Ewan

b.5 September 1913 d.10 February 1981
MB ChB Aberd(1936) MRCP(1940) FRCP(1970)

Bill, as he was affectionately known, was born in Tottenham, London, where his father, William John Strachan Ewan, was in general practice. He was the only son and youngest in a family of four children who became orphans within seven years of his birth. The children were fortunate in that their aunt, Mary Ewan, who lived in Aberdeen, willingly undertook the responsibility of their upbringing. Her courage and considerable personal sacrifice were rewarded by gaining the love and affection of all four children. Bill was educated at Fettes College and the University of Aberdeen, where he graduated in medicine in 1936, pursuing his clinical work at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. Following house appointments at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, he took up senior resident posts at Hackney and Hammersmith Hospitals, London, becoming a member of the College in 1940.

Bill joined the RAMC in 1940 as a medical specialist and served in the Middle East and Italian campaigns, the latter part in command of a medical division. In 1943 he was appointed medical officer to the Cairo Conference. While in Egypt he met and fell in love with a charming girl, equally dedicated to the medical profession, and they were married in Rome in 1944. Joan Mary, daughter of Frank Thatcher, a clerk in Holy Orders, was a nursing sister in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military and Naval Nursing Service. They had one daughter, Rosie.

In May 1946 Bill was appointed physician to the Rush Green Hospital and physician superintendent to the Harold Wood EMS Hospital. The latter was a dormitory sector unit, and Bill Ewan had the responsibility of developing it into a district general hospital, to serve the needs of a rapidly increasing local population and a new town development at Harold Hill. Ewan undertook a daunting task with almost obsessional dedication and resolve, so that it became his life’s main work. A wiser appointment could not have been made, for Bill was not only an outstanding physician but also a superb administrator. He sought to provide a service of excellence for the patients and, by example and precept, a spirit of harmony and dedication throughout the entire hospital staff. By sheer unselfish hard work Ewan succeeded where many less determined would have given up in despair and frustration. A perfectionist, he demanded of his staff the same high standards and, if need arose, he reprimanded them in private but loyally supported them against outside criticism, and was always concerned with their welfare.

Bill’s wise counsel was constantly sought by his colleagues, but he never considered undertaking private practice, and remained firmly committed to the National Health Service. He would have been the first to admit that without the staunch support of his wife, Joan, much of this endeavour would not have been possible. In his later years he was affectionately referred to by his juniors as ‘Uncle Bill’, and it is strong testament to his popularity and esteem that no less than 80 of his former junior staff attended a dinner in honour of his retirement in 1979.

Bill Ewan was shy and reserved in character and frugal in habit, but he was a very good companion. He was also discreetly generous to those in need of help. He had little time available for recreation and family life, and consequently it was all the more precious to him. He allowed himself only one holiday a year, when he disappeared with his family into the Highlands of Scotland for four weeks. In early years he had represented his university at rugby and golf. He had a natural ability for the latter game and at his best played off an enviable handicap of plus two. Time did not change his beautiful rhythmical swing, but his work load only allowed him the occasional game.

JE Talbot

[Brit.med.J., 1981, 282, 1389]

(Volume VII, page 181)

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