Lives of the fellows

Don Hilson

b.8 May 1918 d.16 October 1983
BA Cantab(1939) MRCS LRCP(1942) MA(1944) DCH(1947) MRCP(1948) MB BChir(1949) FRCPE(1968) FRCP(1973)

Don Hilson was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, of emigre Jewish parents in 1918, and was educated there at Parktown Preparatory School and Witwatersrand University, before coming over to England to read medicine at Cambridge. He qualified from the Westminster Hospital where he was Wander scholar in 1942, winning the Sturges gold medal and the Frederick Bird prize.

After serving as paediatric registrar in the Westminster Hospital, house surgeon at Great Ormond Street, RMO at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and Queen Mary’s Hospital Carshalton, he moved back to Capetown in 1945 as professorial medical assistant, but in 1950, not liking the kind of government that white South Africans had chosen for themselves, he returned to England for good, and after a period as senior registrar in Liverpool was made the first consultant paediatrician to serve the children of Oldham, Ashton, Hyde and Glossop in 1951, a post in which he served until his retirement.

One cannot imagine a translation more drastic than from the sunlit Rand to the rainy foothills of the Pennines, but Hilson took it in his stride (his forebears had after all managed the transition from Russia and Switzerland to South Africa with success) and rapidly established himself in the already languishing cotton towns, where he brought energy, flair and imagination to a paediatric service in a locality that had never had one before.

A man of parts, with musical, artistic and sporting interests, he combined the social and intellectual polish of his University, the slightly exotic physiognomy of his forebears, the uninhibited practicality of his country of origin, and the down to earth common sense of his adopted city, informing all of them with a nimble mind, a genuinely kind heart and an idealistic outlook. These qualities were evident in the book that he wrote on practical paediatrics in 1963, which was well received and proved very useful.

He became in time a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, a member of the British Paediatric Association, an associate fellow of the South African Medical Association (in recognition of a series of working visits to the New Republic), and a prominent member of his local branch of the BMA and of the Manchester Medical Society, which he served when his turn came round as president of its paediatric section. He was also active in adoption, being chairman of the Ashton under Lyme Adoption Society for many years, and in postgraduate and undergraduate medical education. He was made an honorary lecturer in paediatrics by the University of Manchester in 1969, and postgraduate tutor in 1964.

As a physician Hilson was diligent, extremely well informed and generally popular with his patients and their parents. He was particularly good to his junior colleagues, trying to ensure that they undertook original work and that they were not bypassed by teaching hospital colleagues on the consultant ladder. He did not like to be crossed, and was perhaps over-ready to resent what he saw as patronage or interference on the part of colleagues in the Manchester teaching hospitals, where in fact he was held in considerable respect, despite his apparently idiosyncractic and not always orthodox practice. His ideas, though off-beat at first hearing, were usually based on sound biological instincts and often turned out to be ahead of their time, but it is difficult for a single handed paediatrician to pursue original ideas in a peripheral hospital in the North West of England.

Asked how it was that South African medical schools turned out so many able and indeed brilliant graduates, one of them once replied ‘pedantic Scots professors, imaginative Jewish students and lots of sick Africans’. Don Hilson was a good example of a physician brought up in this tradition, and the children of Oldham and its surrounding conurbation benefited over many years from his learning, his originality and his ability, single-handed, to minister to their needs.

Hilson’s wife Lena was also a physician, and shared his interests and concerns from the time of their marriage in 1941 until retirement and death.

JA Davis

(Volume VII, page 266)

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