Lives of the fellows

Wilfred Davison Newcomb

b.8 June 1889 d.18 February 1971
MRCS LRCP(1914) MA MB BChir Cantab(1920) MD(1931) MRCP(1935) FRCP(1942)

Wilfred Newcomb was born at Rochester, Kent, where his father was a business man who gave much of his spare time to conducting a Bible Class for young men. His mother was Eliza Jane, daughter of John Davison, a Kentish shipbuilder. Newcomb was educated at King’s School, Rochester, where he was a King’s Scholar, and at Liverpool College, London. He won an Open Exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, obtaining First Class Honours in the Natural Science Tripos in 1910, and in the same year an Entrance Scholarship at the London Hospital Medical School, qualifying from there with the Conjoint Diploma in 1914. After holding junior appointments at the Hospital in the out-patient department and as Receiving Room Officer, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 and served first with a British Field Hospital in Serbia, and later as Surgical Specialist at the Deccan British War Hospital at Poona. In 1918 he was sent to France with the Xlth Division, returning to the London Hospital as Assistant in the Department of Morbid Anatomy in 1919. In the following year he graduated MB Bchir at Cambridge and was appointed first Assistant Pathologist at St. Mary’s Hospital, W.2. Here he worked with E.H. Kettle, whom he succeeded as Morbid Anatomist to the Hospital in 1924. He wrote his MD thesis in 1931 on the electrical reactivity of denervated muscle, for which he was awarded the Raymond Horton Smith prize for the best MD thesis of the year.

Newcomb spent thirty-four years of his life working in the Pathology Department of St. Mary’s Hospital, being appointed professor of morbid anatomy, University of London in 1937, and emeritus on his retirement in 1954. His main interests in Pathology were peptic ulceration and renal tumours, but he became an exceptionally fine general diagnostic pathologist. He contributed papers on peptic ulceration in the British Journal of Surgery in 1932, and on tumours of the urinary tract to the Proceedings Royal Society Medicine in 1939. For his published work he was elected MRCP in 1935, and FRCP in 1942. He was Erasmus Wilson Lecturer of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1928 and Kettle Memorial Lecturer in 1948. Newcomb took an active part in the work of the University, being Chairman of the Board of Studies in Pathology, and outside his Hospital duties he served as Chairman of the Diagnostic Reference Panel of the British Empire Cancer Campaign, President of the Pathology Section of the Royal Society of Medicine (1936), and Vice-President of the Medico-Legal Society (1948). He was for many years an Examiner in Pathology at London and Cambridge Universities and for the Royal Colleges.

Newcomb was a fine teacher with a simple, direct and friendly manner and his post-mortem demonstrations, held every day at 1.30, were always crowded with students; his lively discussions with them and the consultants present made morbid anatomy an exciting and an intensely rewarding subject. His handling of unexpected and sometimes disillusioning findings showed his own humility and integrity in his search for truth, with a total lack of any attempt to score off others’ mistakes. Throughout his teaching years at St. Mary’s, Newcomb brought pathology into its rightful place, linked with clinical experience, and his many clinical colleagues owed much to his ever-ready and helpful advice. He trained many young pathologists and twelve of his pupils were later appointed to professorial chairs. His skill as a histological diagnostician was of the highest order, both in technique and interpretation, helped by a remarkable memory and a magnificent reference collection of slides.

Newcomb’s gentle but firm personality made him immensely popular and a most successful deputy Dean of the Medical School. He was sincerely interested in other people’s affairs. His own interests were wide and though he was a total abstainer all his life, he enjoyed entertaining. As a gardener he was exceedingly expert with an almost unique knowledge of ‘composts’ and their use. He was a good photographer, and used to say that he had become a cabinet-maker by the age of 5! He married in 1920 Ann Hawksley, who had been a nursing sister at the London Hospital, and who served in hospitals abroad with him in the 1914-18 war. She gave Newcomb unfailing support in many of his hospital and outside activities until she died in 1963.

When Newcomb retired from St. Mary’s in 1954 he and his wife bought a house and some rough land at Andover, Hants, where, with the help of a small mechanical hand-tiller given him as a parting present from the staff of St. Mary’s, he developed a fine garden and lived there until his death. In his Will he left to the College this house and land which had by then become scheduled for building purposes, and in October 1972 the College was able to record thanks for an initial sum of £60,000 on account of the bequest from Dr.W.D.Newcomb, the final figure reaching the munificent sum of £175,000.

TC Hunt

[Brit.med.J., 1971, 1, 508 & 2, 118; Lancet, 1971, 1, 501]

(Volume VI, page 357)

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