Lives of the fellows

William Edward Snell

b.16 August 1902 d.25 October 1990
MA Cantab(1923)BSc Lond(1924) MRCS LRCP(1926) DPH(1928) MD(1929) MRCP(1933) FRCP(1943)

William Snell was born in south-west London where his father, Sidney Herbert Snell, was a general practitioner. His mother, Emily Hilda, was the daughter of William Green, a mining engineer and agent to a landed estate. William was educated at Stubbington House, Fareham, in Hampshire, Bradfield College and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he was an exhibitioner and prizeman in 1922. After taking an MA at Cambridge, he entered University College Hospital, London University, obtained a BSc and became a graduate of both universities. He then studied medicine and qualified with the Conjoint in 1926, following this with the diploma in public health, a doctorate and his membership of the College.

His first post was as house physician to Charles Bolton [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.499] from 1926-27, and he then became assistant medical officer at Colindale Hospital, Middlesex, and the North Eastern Fever Hospital. He was briefly deputy MOH for East Ham before becoming tuberculosis officer at the Royal Northern Hospital, 1928-38, and also clinical assistant in the children’s department from 1930-33. It was in 1930 that the Sun Life Insurance Company of Canada financed a scholarship tour for fifty selected members of the medical profession who were actively engaged, wholly or partly, in tuberculosis work and William Snell was among them The participants paid only their return fare across the Atlantic - which at that time amounted to £37.10s; by sea, of course. Once there, the party visited sanatoria and hospitals throughout Canada and also in the USA, specifically Detroit, Chicago and New York. Although the trip was during the years of prohibition in the USA it did not seem to apply to unofficial hospitality which was generously supplied at various clubs on route.

In 1934, William Snell married Yvonne Creagh née Brown, whose father Stanley James Brown was managing director of the Amalgamated Press. They had two sons and a daughter, Nigel, Nicola and Noel. Noel followed his father into the medical profession. William Snell was appointed physician superintendent at the Colindale Hospital in 1938 and held this post until 1967. It was designated a ‘reserved occupation' during the war years as the hospital was part of the Emergency Medical Service and dealt with air raid casualties, Service personnel from Hendon aerodrome and patients evacuated from central London hospitals, although the hospital itself was badly bombed on two occasions and was evacuated to Kinmel Hall, North Wales, from 1944-45.

In 1941, William Snell read a paper entitled ‘Senile Tuberculosis’ at a meeting of the Tuberculosis Association assembled at Mansion House. Until then, many people had thought of tuberculosis as a disease of young adults. In 1946 he was a member of a small sub-committee appointed by the Council of the Association to ‘investigate ways and means for cooperating with other bodies with regard to research in tuberculosis’. The other members were F R G Heaf [Munk's Roll, Vol VI, p.229] L E Houghton and J V Hurford [Munk's Roll, Vol,VIII, p.237]. As a result, a research committee was formed which succeeded in conducting large multi-centre controlled clinical trials which enabled it to evaluate very rapidly the early anti-tuberculous drugs. In June 1948 at the annual general meeting of the Association, held in Belfast, the Tuberculosis Association became The British Tuberculosis Association (BTA). William Snell was president of the Association from 1955-57. This was shortly after Richard Doll, later Sir Richard, and Austin Bradford Hill, later Sir Austin, (q.v.) had demonstrated an association between smoking and lung cancer, an investigation suggested by William Snell in a letter to the secretary of the Medical Research Council in 1948. Almost his first act as president was to propose to council that a letter should be written to several national newspapers drawing attention to the fact that the Association accepted the close link between smoking and lung cancer.

At the age of 16, after a severe attack of poliomyelitis, William was left lame - a handicap he completely overcame. He had earlier been interested in football and cricket, later he took an interest in golf but his favourite recreations were gardening and sailing - in the days when cabin cruising in the Solent and the English Channel was less crowded. He cruised widely in home waters and also across channel in the 10-ton Lucifer and 15-ton Craignair of which he was part owner. He later owned a 16ft dinghy which he kept at Keyhaven. In 1934 he made a garden out of a piece of rough meadow, unaided, which proved good enough for illustration in the national press.

Apart from his scientific medical publications, he published a number of papers relating to the history of medicine, including an extensive study entitled ‘Captain Cook’s surgeons’ for the History of Medicine section of the RSM, of which he was twice vice-president, in 1963. In 1978 he chaired the committee which wrote the official history of the British Thoracic Association. He was noted for a dry but never hurtful wit, and a quiet but sane and effective approach to professional and non-professional problems. He was a member of many clubs, including the Athenaeum, Keyhaven Yacht Club, the Cambridge Cruising Club and the Cambridge Union, the National Trust and the Society for Nautical Research.

W H Tattersall

[The first fifty years, The British Thoracic Association, 1978; Med.History,7, 1963]

(Volume IX, page 489)

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