Lives of the fellows

William Henry (Sir) Trethowan

b.3 June 1917 d.15 December 1995
Kt(1980) CBE(1975) MB BChir Cantab(1943) MRCS LRCP(1943) MRCP(1948) DPM(1950) FRACP(1961) FRCP(1963) Hon FANZCP(1965) FRCPsych(1971) Hon DSc Chinese University of Hong Kong(1979) Hon FRCPsych(1983)

Bill Trethowan was one of the most influential British psychiatrists of the last half century. Trained at Cambridge and Guy’s, he served in the RAMC during the war, reaching the rank of major. After passing the MRCP examination in 1948 he chose to specialize in psychiatry at the Maudsley, had a spell at Harvard Medical School and returned to an academic post at the University of Manchester. In 1956 he was appointed to the chair of psychiatry in Sydney and here he showed his flair for organization. On arrival he found the state of mental health services in New South Wales "appalling" (his own description) and immediately set about to improve them, with outstanding success. Almost single-handedly he rewrote the Mental Health Act and by the time he left six years later he had established a formidable reputation as a clinician, teacher and administrator.

In 1962 he was attracted back to Britain to become the first full time professor of psychiatry at the University of Birmingham. Once more within a few years he transformed the clinical service and teaching in psychiatry. He started a senior registrar rotational training scheme in the Midlands which proved extremely popular and his own lectures and teaching sessions were erudite, witty and inspirational. Amongst other things, he encouraged part time training in psychiatry and he must have taken great pride in the selection of one of his part time trainees to the presidency of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Trethowan served as dean of Birmingham Medical School from 1968 to 1974.

Research was not his forte, although he published quite widely. He collected and wrote about psychiatric rarities and his special interest was in the relationship between mental illness and musical creativity. His organizational ability and sharp but sensible contributions to debate led to his recruitment to many influential posts and committees, locally in the medical school and regional health authority, in the newly-formed Royal College of Psychiatrists as senior examiner and nationally as consultant adviser in psychiatry to the DHSS, chairman of the Standing Mental Health Advisory Committee and Central Health Services Council, amongst others. He chaired the steering committee that led to the establishment of a medical school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was appointed CBE in 1975 and knighted in 1980.

All of this, with appropriate adjustments, could describe the career of any distinguished and senior medical academic in Britain, but it reflects little of Bill’s outstanding personal characteristics. He was tall and big (a euphemism for rotund), serious, rather intimidating until you got to know him. "Saturnine", "dark and brooding" were applied to him by others. In its obituary The Times described a probably apocryphal story of his dismissal of an angry horde of medical students who had gathered on the steps of the medical school in 1968 "simply by his imposing presence and the use of two words - both short". When you got beneath this rather austere exterior, there was the real Bill Trethowan - charming, warm, clever, witty, entertaining, delightful company. Music was Bill’s great passion, with a surprising emphasis on jazz. At Cambridge he was the musical director of the Footlights and he composed the music for the 1938 May Week revue, Pure and Simple, and for a BBC production of Little Miss Rosalind, a musical comedy based on As You Like It. Both were highly praised. He was a renowned pianist and trumpeter, playing Bach as well as jazz. Had he so wished he could no doubt have had a successful career in music; he had, in fact, enrolled at Cambridge for a music degree and for a time studied orchestration and conducting at the Royal College of Music. He also ran a professional dance band.

His marriage to Pamela Waters, an actress and singer whom he married in 1941, was singularly happy and they both flourished in Australia where Pam produced plays and they established a legendary reputation as hosts. This carried over into their Birmingham years. They had two daughters and a son. In later life Bill built electronic organs in his spare time and enhanced his interest in food by becoming an expert cook. He suffered serious depression after Pam’s death, but found new happiness in a second marriage to Heather Dalton (née Gardiner).

Sir Raymond Hoffenberg

[The Times, 1 Jan 1996; The Daily Telegraph, 2 Jan 1996; The Independent, 30 Dec 1995;, 1996,312,1154]

(Volume X, page 498)

<< Back to List