Lives of the fellows

Thomas Frederick Hewer

b.12 April 1903 d.15 March 1994
MB ChB Bristol(1927) MD(1930) MRCP(1932)FRCP(1962)

Thomas Hewer was the eldest son of a Bristol corn merchant, William Frederick Hewer, and his wife Kathleen (née Standerwick). He was educated at Bristol Grammar School. While there he made a fine collection of moths, butterflies and dragonflies, which was later exhibited in the Bristol Museum. Another interest was spelaeology, which he developed while studying at Bristol University in the early 1920s. He graduated with distinction in pathology and surgery and his first posts were in casualty at the Bristol General Hospital and in medicine at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. He then spent the next decade training as a pathologist. With the help of a Commonwealth fund fellowship he spent two years, from 1927 to 1929, as assistant pathologist to W G MacCallum at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. This was followed by five years as bacteriologist to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. He was also in charge of the pathology department of the Kitchener School of Medicine. He lived frugally, sending the bulk of his income home to his parents whose family business had been hit in the depression.

He returned to England in 1935 and was appointed senior lecturer in pathology in the University of Liverpool. In 1937 he was awarded the Markham Skerritt memorial prize by the University of Bristol for published work, especially on syphilis, yaws and yellow fever. The following year, in 1938, he was appointed to the Bristol chair of pathology at the young age of 35. For the next 30 years, as a practising pathologist and an impressive teacher, he was to be best remembered for his meticulously prepared weekly clinico-pathological case conferences. It was he who initiated the Army blood transfusion service before the outbreak of war, handing it over to Lionel Whitby, later Sir Lionel [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.444] in 1939. In 1966 he became pro-vice chancellor of the University of Bristol and the following year was elected president of the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Society. He retired in 1968.

Tall and elegantly dressed, Tom brought the charm and style of an Edwardian gentleman to all his activities, along with enthusiasm, thoroughness and determination. He achieved distinction in a number of fields as well as in pathology, the most notable being botany and horticulture. When pressed, he would concede that perhaps his most important contribution to medicine - made in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation while in the Sudan in 1934 - was to discover the existence of yellow fever in Central Africa. The significance of this lay in the potential of the newly created Cape-to-Cairo air service to transport this deadly infection further afield to countries where the chief mosquito vector, aedes aegypti, was already plentiful. He was then 31 years old. Forty-two years later, Tom Hewer made a second equally important discovery. Between 1976 and 1977, on behalf of the WHO, he made botanical expeditions to the desert, east of the Caspian Sea in North Eastern Iran, to investigate why two-thirds of the deaths among the Turkoman tribesmen living there were due to cancer of the oesophagus. His conclusion, that the cause was due to opium smoking and the widespread practice of chewing opium tar-dross from the pipes when the drug was in short supply, was politically unacceptable to the Shah's government and he was forced to leave the country in haste.

Tom married Anne Hiatt Baker in 1941 and they had two daughters and two sons. She was a keen gardener and he soon shared her passion for plants. Together, with the help of many medical students, they converted a two-acre wilderness around their home in Henbury into the loveliest of gardens. Retirement also gave him the leisure to mount overland expeditions, often arduous, to the Alps, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afganistan, in search of rare plants - not only for his own garden at Vine House, but also for the botanical gardens at Kew, Edinburgh and Cambridge. He discovered 20 new plant species, three of which - iris heweri, acantholimon heweri and bellavalia heweri, were named after him. He also gave unstinting and distinguished service to the Bristol Zoo Gardens and to the English Speaking Union. He was elected a fellow of the Linnaean Society.

Tom Hewer was a sociable person, with many friends. He loved entertaining and was a gracious host. A lively raconteur, with a great sense of fun, he thoroughly enjoyed food, wine and conversation. But he was probably never happier than when, in panaman hat and field jacket with a flamboyant kerchief round his neck, he worked in his garden with his wife and family or conducted visitors round its flowering glades and streams. This he was able to do right up to the end of his life. He died peacefully, after a short illness, at the age of 90.

P M Dunn

[The Times, 23 Mar 1994; The Independent, 19 Mar 1994; The Guardian, 22 Mar 1994]

(Volume X, page 213)

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