Lives of the fellows

Charles Edward Cecil Wells

b.9 March 1917 d.9 May 1993
LASSA(1942) MB BS Lond(1943) MRCP(1951) FRCP(1966)

Charles Wells was born into a medical family. His father, Wilfred Wood Wells MD, was a general practitioner in Cornwall from 1922-1955, in practice in Bromyard and then in Constantine. According to family law there were two former presidents of the Royal College on the maternal side; one was Thomas Mayo, 1790-1871, president from 1857-1862 and renowned for his description of Bell’s palsy several years before James Bell published his account.

Charles was educated at Radley but did not immediately enter medical school. He wished to broaden his education by a three year apprenticeship in journalism with The Hereford Times, six months in Heidelberg to study German medical methods and then six months in France. He returned home fluent in both languages.

In 1938 he started his medical studies at Bart’s. He was much influenced by O S Tubbs’ clinical teaching, with whom he did his first house job. By the time he qualified in 1943 the war in Europe was at a critical phase and he was keen to join up. Once in the RAMC, it seems that he requested an immediate transfer to Montgomery’s Parachute Brigade, at that time hard pressed at Arnhem. He gained his wings and was promoted captain RAMC to serve with 16 Parachute Field Ambulance. A short time later he was captured, along with 3000 others for whom he became the only available medical officer.

Little is known of his time as a POW. When Charles returned to civilian life, he disliked intensely to be reminded of his experiences and would never speak of them The few fragments that can now be recounted come from a letter of his, dated some 50 years later and significantly written in the third person. On the first days of capture he wrote: ‘ ... he could not believe the order, brought by a runner from the unit Commander, to close down his RAP, transfer all wounded to MDS or nearby RAP; when transfer complete to report to German Major in black uniform for duty with wounded British POWs. The transfer done, he approached the SS officer who did not speak but pointed to a half open door through which he saw a bunch of dishevelled paras guarded by a Feldwobel (sergeant) armed, of all things, with an anti-tank gun. As he walked the Feldwobel raised his weapon and fired, but it did not go off ... ’. There followed incarceration in a garage ‘ ... so cramped that no one could lie on the floor, and a constant need to avoid the necessary functions of fellow prisoners.’ He was eventually transferred to Germany, to Luneberg Heath, Stalag 11B. here he was threatened with the gas chambers if he persisted in asking for medical supplies for his men. His captors never discovered that he frequently slept on the mortuary slab.

Charles returned home in May 1945 and was mentioned in despatches. He met Pixie Catherine Millicent Watson, a final year student at Cornwall Royal Infirmary. They married on 20 December 1945 and there were three children, two boys and a girl. After demobilization he worked in general practice in various parts of west and central Cornwall, held a junior post in pathology in a local hospital and at last enjoyed both life and work. Once, during the winter of 1947, he was called to see a patient stranded in a railway carriage in the middle of Bodmin Moor; when he arrived he was startled to find her in the last stages of labour and - ever resourceful -he delivered her successfully with the aid of two large serving spoons.

Following the completion of several more junior appointments, he opted for the Royal Navy before settling down to train for his chosen specialty of neurology. He was appointed a medical specialist with the rank of surgeon lieutenant commander but, unfortunately, his first posting to Ceylon ended abruptly as he could not stand the intense heat and was invalided home.

After training for a year in Newcastle upon Tyne, a consultant appointment in Cardiff followed in July 1959, where J D Spillane [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.479] was the senior neurologist. Several papers were written jointly and he cooperated in the preparation of a remarkable book, An atlas of clinical neurology, J D Spillane, London, OUP, 1968. Wells was also a part-time clinical tutor at the Welsh National School of Medicine. His papers included acrodystrophic neuropathy, the clinical aspects of spinovascular disease, the neurology of macrocytic anaemia and the neurology of Jennerian vaccination. His presentations to the RSM, the British Association of Neurologists and other societies, were always impeccable; the delivery relaxed and without notes, apparently extempore, but like the best of after dinner speeches they were meticulously rehearsed.

Friends and colleagues in Cardiff, unaware of his war experiences, noticed nothing amiss. Although there were occasionally flashes of anger, quickly controlled, when he thought he was ‘being used’, he was very helpful and supportive to colleagues, both senior and junior, when the occasion demanded. His continued reticence concerning his long captivity was a source of worry and dismay for his family. He was very proud of the achievements of his children: Denys a general practice near Lichfield and an honorary lecturer at Keele University in the department of pharmacy; Ann who graduated in archaeology, which stimulated his interest in the subject, and John a station manager with British Rail.

When he retired in 1982 the family moved to Kilmington in Devon and later to a cob cottage in Zoar, near Falmouth. Medical work was replaced by bird watching, alpine flowers, long walks with Pixie, sailing and the linguistics of Cornish place names. When he developed diabetes it was very mild and remained so for about ten years. He did not seek medical help until August 1990 when he had a rigor due to a severe bladder infection which was not detected for some time. That episode ushered in two severe complications of diabetes; peripheral neuropathy and retinopathy, seemingly untouched by therapy. He became nearly blind yet struggled on with correspondence in a shaky hand but with a clear brain. The neuropathy caused him great suffering, he described the paraesthesiae in his hands and feet as ‘awful’ and they were not controlled until he was admitted to hospital. He died at home.

D G F Harriman

[Brit.med.J., 1993,307,196-7]

(Volume IX, page 571)

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