Lives of the fellows

William Willis Dalziel (Sir) Thomson

b.8 September 1885 d.26 November 1950
Kt(1950) BA RUI(1907) MB BCh BAO Belf(1910) BPH Belf(1912) BSc Belf(1913) MD Belf(1916) MRCP(1918) FRCP(1928)

W. W. D. Thomson was born at Anahilt, near Hillsborough, co. Down, the son of Dr William Thomson, dispensary doctor of that district, and Elizabeth (Greer) Thomson. He was educated at Campbell College and the old Queen’s College, Belfast. As an undergraduate he won many prizes and distinctions, notable among these being the Henry Hutchinson Stewart scholarship of the Royal University of Ireland, the Dunville studentship, and the senior scholarship in chemistry at the Queen’s University.

After a year spent as house physician at the Belfast Fever Hospital he became university demonstrator, first in physiology and later in pathology. His studies then led him further afield to London, Budapest and Paris, where one of his first papers (on blood urea, Trans. Ulster med. Soc., 1914, Session 1913-14,153-64), was prepared while he was working with Widal. During the 1914-18 War he served as temporary captain, R.A.M.C., part of the time working on war nephritis with Sir Almroth Wright in the laboratory attached to No. 13 General Hospital at Wimereux, near Boulogne. Here he met Gordon Holmes who aroused his interest in clinical neurology. Similarly, it may have been his association with Sir Bertrand Dawson in dealing with chest wounds that prompted his original study of bronchial carcinoma begun in the early thirties, when the condition was first attracting attention (Ulster med. J., 1933, 2, 153-70). Hypertensive disease also interested him, as did medical history, shown in his account of the life and work of another great co. Down man, Sir Hans Sloane (ibid., 1938, 7, 1-17).

Elected to the staif of the Mater Infirmorum Hospital on his return from the War, Thomson became assistant physician to the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1918, and in 1923 followed James Alexander Lindsay in the chair of medicine at the University. A year later he became full physician at the Hospital. Unfortunately at about this time his career was interrupted by an illness, so serious and prolonged, that even when he began to show signs of recovery few believed that he would be able to resume his professional duties. The year 1928, however, found him back at work.

In the last twenty years of his life ‘W. D.', as he was affectionately known, came to occupy an almost unique place among his fellows. His tall, slim figure altered little, although his hair turned white and his eyebrows became more bushy. He still retained the accents, of his native co. Down and his rather joyous way of greeting people, were they patients, students, house physicians or senior colleagues. Despite his position he directed nobody; instead he would suggest that such and such a thing should be done; when a mistake had been made he would simply take his subordinate gently by the arm, or if the occasion warranted it and he knew his man, poke a little fun. He was a good companion and liked a story, especially one which had local colour and could be rendered in the Doric. He and his wife kept open house where every guest was at his ease.

Under his guidance the department of medicine at Queen’s University flourished. Students flocked to his ward demonstrations, and senior colleagues often sought his advice on education and administration. As his appointment as professor was part-time, he had to support himself largely by private practice. This often entailed long journeys to meet country doctors in consultation, but he enjoyed such experiences and felt that he learned much from them.

Honours followed in quick succession, in presidencies of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Medical Association (1932), of the Irish Medical Schools’ and Graduates’ Association (1936), of the Ulster Medical Society (1937), and of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland (1949). He became Deputy Lieutenant of the city of Belfast and was knighted in 1950. He represented Queen’s University on the General Medical Council, and was a prominent member of the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority, when it was formed after the introduction of the Health Act. In 1939 he was Lumleian lecturer at the College.

He married in 1916 Josephine, youngest daughter of Humphrey Barron, J.P., of Belfast. Their only son, Capt. Humphrey Barron Thomson, R.A.M.C., was killed in 1942 whilst on active service in the Far East.

Richard R Trail

[Belfast Newsletter, 27 Nov. 1950 (p); Belfast Telegraph, 27 Nov. 1950 (p); Brit.med.J., 1950, 2, 1335 (p); Irish Times, 27 Nov. 1950; Lancet, 1950, 2, 776-7 (p).]

(Volume V, page 413)

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