Lives of the fellows

William Rees-Thomas

b.15 June 1887 d.1978
CB(1950) MB BS Lond(1909) MD(1910) MRCS LRCP(1912) DPM(1914) MRCP(1913) FRCP(1933) FRCPsych(1971)

William Rees-Thomas was born in 1887 of a Welsh farming family, at Bailea, near Senny Bridge in Breconshire, the youngest child and only son of his parents. He was educated at the County School at Brecon; his abilities won him scholarships and he entered on the study of medicine at University College, Cardiff, and afterwards at Charing Cross Hospital. More prizes came his way, and he graduated with honours in 1909, proceeding to the London MD in the following year. In 1912 he was awarded a Murchison scholarship of the Royal College of Physicians of London. By this time his interest had turned to psychiatry, his first substantive appointment being that of medical officer and pathologist at the East Sussex County Mental Hospital, Hellingly. Besides the recently instituted DPM of Cambridge University, he acquired the older certificate of the Medico-Psychological Association (MPC), and won the Gaskell gold medal of that Association; moreover under the existing regulations he won honours in psychological medicine at the MRCP examinations. He was elected FRCP in 1933.

In the absence of a special institution for mental defectives in Sussex, Hellingly Hospital cared for many such patients, and Rees-Thomas’s first published article was on ‘Syphilis among mental defectives’. He soon took this branch of psychiatry as his specialty. In 1914 Moss Side Hospital at Maghull, near Liverpool, opened as a state institution for ‘criminal and violent’ mental defectives, and Rees-Thomas was appointed its first medical superintendent; but within a few months the buildings were taken over for use as a war hospital, mainly for the treatment of neurosis and ‘shell shock’, and Rees-Thomas left for active service in the RAMC. He was in action in Gallipoli, and afterwards served in Mesopotamia and India.

He returned to Moss Side in 1919, but again within a short time the use of the hospital was changed, and he was transferred with his patients to Rampton Hospital in Nottinghamshire which, having been built as a second Broadmoor, was now allocated to mental defectives needing special security. In the next twelve years Rees-Thomas developed the hospital on progressive lines, with full occupational and recreational facilities, so that its reputation stood as high as that of any psychiatric hospital in the country.

In 1932 Rees-Thomas was appointed one of the two medical senior commissioners of the Board of Control, which at that time supervised the welfare of mental patients, inspected the mental hospitals and was directly responsible for the state institutions (later called ‘special hospitals’). His older colleague was Sir Hubert Bond, and together they encouraged the developments made possible by the Mental Treatment Act of 1930, such as the opening of psychiatric clinics and cooperation with local authority services, as well as the new physical methods of treatment.

After the disruption of the second war years (during which the Board’s headquarters were at St Anne’s-on-sea, Lancashire) Rees-Thomas was concerned with the changes connected with the inclusion of psychiatry in the National Health Service, and then with progressive developments such as community care and the informal admission of patients, foreshadowing the provisions of the 1959 Mental Health Act.

By this time the Commissioners also held office in the Ministry of Health, and Rees-Thomas, like his colleagues, felt that there was no longer a need for an independent Board of Control. The Royal (Percy) Commission agreed with this, and the Board’s existence came to an end in 1960, when Rees-Thomas retired - long after the usual age. He had been made a CB in 1950.

He had throughout taken an active part in the affairs of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, and after serving as vice-chairman of its Mental Deficiency and Educational Committees, occupied the presidential chair in 1949- 1950. He inaugural address, entitled ‘What the patient thinks’, was essentially a plea for congenial conditions in mental hospitals, with emphasis on the prevention of boredom and deterioration. He served also, for several years, as the RMPA’s representative on the General Nursing Council. He was made an honorary member in 1955.

Rees-Thomas was generally regarded by his psychiatrist colleagues as a man of progressive ideas tempered with caution, relying much on tact and diplomacy to achieve the results he sought. In his private life he exemplified his own gospel of occupation and his leisure activities, though given in Who's Who as photography and golf, in fact ranged widely from bird-watching to knitting and sewing.

He married in 1917 — presumably while on leave from army service— Muriel Hodgson Jones, a clergyman’s daughter, whom he had met while at Moss Side. By her he had a son and daughter; the latter married DWT Roberts, obstetrician and gynaecologist to St George’s Hospital. His first wife died in 1935, and in 1948 he married Ruth Darwin, a granddaughter of Charles Darwin who, like himself, was a senior commissioner of the Board of Control, having previously for many years been actively engaged in promoting the welfare of the mentally defective. After their retirement they lived at High Hackhurst, near Abinger Hammer in Surrey, where they devoted themselves to the beautifying of their garden, which was regularly open to the public. Mrs Rees-Thomas died in 1972 but her husband lived for another six years, dying in 1978 at the age of 91.

A Walk

[Sources: Personal recollections and communications; Board of Control Reports]

(Volume VII, page 490)

<< Back to List