Lives of the fellows

Richard Robert Willcox

b.10 May 1912 d.2 May 1985
MRCS LRCP(1936) MB BS Lond(1937) MD(1951) MRCP(1970) FRCP(1976)

Richard Willcox had a conventional upbringing but a most unusual medical career. He was educated at Cranleigh School and at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London, where he qualified in 1936. He won the Cheadle gold medal in 1937. After a number of junior posts at St Mary’s, and other hospitals in the home counties, his interest in venereology began in the Army, where he eventually became command specialist in Eastern Command, command venereologist in West Africa 1943-45, and adviser in venereology to the War Office with the rank of lieutenant colonel. On demobilization in 1946 he was immediately appointed consultant venereologist to St Mary’s Hospital, and in 1947 he became consultant venereologist to the King Edward VII Hospital, Windsor. He held both these posts, and also managed a busy private practice, until his retirement in 1976.

For many years after retirement he continued to see patients, to conduct clinical trials, and to travel widely. He was a very heavy smoker for much of his life and was well known to his colleagues for inhaling strong pipe tobacco. In addition, he was of portly stature and took no exercise whatsoever. Not surprisingly, he developed severe obstructive airways disease and although he gave up smoking he had a number of episodes of respiratory failure, from which he was rescued more than once by the intensive care unit at St Mary’s. Despite this severe handicap he continued to travel all over the world in the interests of his specialty, and his courage and tenacity were greatly admired by all his colleagues and friends. Eventually he died in St Mary’s Hospital, having requested that modern techniques of resuscitation should not be used again in his case.

Dick was an indefatigable traveller, writer and rapporteur: he used to say that his hobbies were writing, travelling and sun-bathing. He wrote a large number of papers on a wide variety of subjects, but mostly reporting clinical trials of new antibiotics. So great was his output that his friends called him 'the Edgar Wallace of venereology’. Moreover, his papers were published in journals all over the world, and during the 1950s and ’60s it was rare for a new antibiotic to be put on the market without, among others, a paper from Richard Willcox describing his experience with it. Some of his colleagues regarded him as a compulsive writer.

His textbook A textbook of venereal diseases, New York, Grune and Stratton, 1950, was widely read throughout the world; a second edition of this book entitled A textbook of venereal diseases and treponematoses, Springfield, III., Thomas, was published c.1964. He also wrote Progress in venereology, London, W Heinemann Medical Books, 1953, and Treponema pallidum, published by the World Health Organization in 1966. A series of reviews of the world literature in venereology from 1948-76 appeared in the British Journal of Venereal Diseases.

In the medical world Dick Willcox not only had an international reputation as a great writer but also as a great traveller, who was always willing to undertake consultantships in any area of the world. As a result, he might be found in places as remote as Papua, New Guinea, or as sophisticated as Washington DC. No journey was too tiring for him and he contributed greatly to the reputation already established by a small number of physicians; that the British were the leaders and trendsetters in this expanding field of medicine.

He will be remembered by his colleagues principally for his skill, tact and prodigious hard work as a rapporteur at all sorts of international meetings throughout the world. Since the second world war the post of rapporteur has assumed increasing importance in international medical meetings, since the rapporteur guides the direction of the discussion, decides what should be included in the report and, in most instances, writes the drafts of the final report. Dick had a special ability to put together documents which produced rapid agreement among the delegates, and many established international reports owe their very existence to his diligence, diplomacy and hard work. Some of the highlights of his work as a rapporteur included the well known travelling seminars in the USSR and USA, and many surveys in Africa, South East Asia, India and the USA. Special praise was given for his two surveys in New Guinea, and for his collaboration with Thorstein Gtithe of WHO in Geneva.

In recognition of his contributions to medicine he was elected president of the Medical Society for the Study of Venereal Diseases for the years 1966 and 1967, and was made an honorary member of many overseas medical societies.

At his riverside home in Barnes, he and his wife ‘Sadie’, née Alma Caffery, were always most hospitable to people from all over the world. He derived great satisfaction from the fact that his son Jeremy took up the same medical specialty and was appointed consultant physician in genito-urinary medicine at Plymouth. In what must be an unusual father/son collaboration, he and Jeremy jointly wrote a book entitled Venereological medicine, London, Grant McIntyre, 1982. The team of Willcox pére et fils produced here an excellent volume which has been widely read and greatly appreciated in their specialty.

Dick bore the burden and responsibility of his worldwide reputation with modesty and charm. Everyone who has attended international meetings overseas will be familiar with the anxious demands of foreign colleagues: ‘Is Willcox coming?’; ‘Have you seen Willcox yet?’; ‘Is Willcox giving a paper?’ and ‘Where is Willcox?’. He was a great ambassador for British medicine and a good companion.

RD Catterall

[Brit.med.J., 1985,291,1131; Lancet, 1985,2,902; St. Mary’s Hosp. Gaz., 1966,72,78-79]

(Volume VIII, page 537)

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