Lives of the fellows

William Hedley John Summerskill

b.8 January 1926 d.9 March 1977
BA Oxon(1947) MRCS LRCP(1949) BM BCh(1949) MA(1951) MRCP(1953) DM(1955) FACP(1966) FRCP(1967)

It is perhaps paradoxical that one so remarkably English should have made his greatest mark in the midwest of the United States. For at the time of his sudden death, at the early age of 51, Bill Summerskill was director of the gastroenterology unit and professor of medicine, Mayo Medical School, University of Minnesota.

William Summerskill was born in London of a medical family. His father was William Hedley Summerskill, an ophthalmologist in Portsmouth, and his aunt was Baroness Summerskill of Kenwood. He was educated at Harrow, where he became head boy, and went on to Oxford with an Evelyn Rothschild scholarship, gaining a rugby Blue, and later entering St Mary’s Hospital Medical School with a university fellowship. After house appointments and service with the RAMC he became a registrar in 1953 at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London, where he worked with Dr (later Dame) Sheila Sherlock. It was during this period that he did the scrupulous and original work on hepatic coma and the pathogenesis of portal-systemic encephalopathy which established his reputation as a clinical research worker. None who heard them will ever forget the brilliance of his staff round presentations at that time. His gilded sophistication was hardly in the Hammersmith tradition of that era, and he was the only registrar in living memory who appeared at work in black coat and striped trousers on the day of the Eton and Harrow game at Lord’s. But his hardworking efficiency, his literary skill, his uncompromising dedication to research, and his sheer clinical ability marked him out as one destined for the highest success.

He was a man of wide interests and culture. Readers of the Lancet will remember his crediting Shakespeare with the first description of hepatic encephalopathy in the alcoholic Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who believed that his wits were harmed by eating too much beef.

In 1955 a Rockefeller travelling scholarship of the Medical Research Council enabled him to spend a period with CS Davidson in the Thorndike Laboratories of the Harvard Medical School, where he made a lasting impression. Returning home in 1957, he became senior registrar to Sir Francis Avery Jones at the Central Middlesex Hospital, and there he expanded his interests into the wider field of gastroenterology. During this time he was secretary and vice-president of the Harveian Society of London, and played an important part in organizing the Harvey Tercentenary Commemoration.

In 1959 he was invited to develop a new gastroenterology unit at the Mayo Clinic. His outstanding talents were now given full rein, and he built up one of the best gastroenterology departments in the world. His enormous capacity for hard work, his administrative ability, and his enthusiastic encouragement of the highest standards of clinical reearch combined to create a unique group of gastroenterologists, who have attracted as research fellows some of the most brilliant young men in both Europe and the United States. He continued in active research, particularly on chronic hepatitis and the treatment of cirrhosis, and he was the author of some 130 original papers and many chapters in monographs and textbooks. In 1966 he became full professor in the University of Minnesota and, at the time of his death, he was also vice-chairman of the department of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. He was a past president of the American Association for the Study of the Liver, and on the governing board of the International Association for the Study of the Liver.

He also served on numerous United States Government committees, particularly on those concerning food and drug administration and on the organization of gastroenterology. He served his adopted country well, but remained essentially English. He never had a trace of an American accent. He kept up his links with England, being elected to the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland in 1966 and becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1967. In 1967 he was also visiting professor at the Royal Free Hospital, and had been invited to give the Lilly lecture at the RCP in 1978.

He married Elizabeth (Betsy) Sheppard in 1950, by whom he had one son. She died in 1965, and in 1969 he married Barbara Ehmcke. He was a keen sportsman, maintaining his interest in both rugby and American football. He was a generous and genial host and a stream of international visitors were welcomed to his department, to his home, and to his boat on the Mississippi. Cruising the inland waterways of the USA was one of his favourite hobbies.

As the years went by and his hair turned to a distinguished silver his reputation became legendary. He stood for excellence and retained throughout his life the ideals and fearless convictions of his earlier years. His candour was unflinching, sometimes provocative, occasionally abrasive, but beneath the exterior there was a remarkable human being who commanded the intense loyalty of his colleagues and who had a Churchillian capacity for generosity and magnanimity. The warmth of his personality will be remembered by all who knew him.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1977, 1, 913; Times, 18 Mar 1977; Lancet, 1977, 1, 710; Gastroenterology, 1977, 73, 435-7; Am. J. Dig. Dis., 1977, 22, 934-5]

(Volume VII, page 560)

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