Lives of the fellows

Denis John Williams

b.6 December 1908 d.26 November 1990
CBE(1955) BSc Manch(1929) MB ChB(1932) MD(1935) MRCP(1937) MSc(1938) DSc(1942) FRCP(1943)

Denis Williams was a major figure in neurology in the postwar era. He was clever, articulate and amusing, nimble of mind and elegant in dress; he was much loved as a physician and admired as a teacher. He was born and grew up in Bangor, where his father was a minister of the Presbyterian Church. His medical education was at Manchester University, where he had a distinguished undergraduate career and was prominent in student affairs. As president of the Students’ Union he already demonstrated the tact, vision and forceful personality which so often then, as later, led to the resolution of daunting problems. He obtained his membership of the College in 1937 and was elected a Fellow in 1943 before he had a consultant appointment, a most unusual distinction.

In the mid-1930s he was awarded a Rockefeller travelling fellowship to Harvard University where he worked with Stanley Cobb and collaborated with Fred Gibbs in his pioneering work on the application of EEG to the study of cerebral disease. It was at this time that he developed his lasting interest in epilepsy. He returned to the UK in 1936, bringing with him the first EEG machine to be used regularly for clinical purposes in this country.

During the second world war Denis Williams, who had already joined the RAF reserve, worked with Sir Charles Symonds [Munk's Roll Vol.VII, p.563] in the head injury unit at St Hugh’s in Oxford -the training ground for so many of the neurologists who dominated the three decades following the war. In 1946 he was appointed physician to the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and St George’s Hospital.

In the years which followed, Denis Williams became one of the most influential figures in neurology in Britain. His activities were manifold, he had a large outpatient and inpatient practice and his firms at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital and the National Hospital were keenly sought after by resident staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students alike. He was a charismatic teacher and his rounds and demonstrations at Queen Square were filled to capacity.

His outstanding characteristics as a physician were his quickness in formulating a problem and his abiding interest in how disease affected the patient as an individual. Although he remained interested in pathophysiological mechanisms (and indeed talked imaginatively about them even if on occasion his interpretations went beyond established fact) it was the human impact of disease which particularly engaged his attention. He had a special capacity - deriving from a combination of perceptiveness, warmth of feeling and an effortless air of authority -for helping patients to come to terms with their afflictions. As a result he had a vast private practice to which patients, especially from the upper echelons of society, came from all over the world.

He retired from St George’s in 1968 to devote more time to Queen Square. His personal charm and the contacts he had in the worlds of finance and affairs enabled him to play a critical role in the fund raising which facilitated the rapid development of the Institute of Neurology in the 1970s. He was a founder trustee of the Brain Research Trust. In the wider world of medicine he exercised an important influence as editor of Brain and councillor, and second vice-president, of the College. His contributions were recognized by his appointment as CBE in 1955 and as Bradshaw lecturer in the same year. He was in great demand as a visiting professor all over the world.

Retirement from the health service in 1974 saw no decline in his energy. His opinion in private practice was still much sought after but he was able to spend more time with his family and working on his farm in Wales, an interest of many years standing. It was there that he died. Throughout the world there are neurologists who remember with deep gratitude the contribution Denis Williams made to their education and the enjoyment of their profession

He had married Joyce, daughter of Frank Beverley Jewson, in 1936. She was herself a qualified medical practitioner and a Justice of the Peace. They had four children; two sons and two daughters. One son predeceased him.

W I McDonald

[The Times, 6 Dec 1990;The Independent, 31 Dec 1990;The Daily Telegraph, 11 Dec 1990; The Guardian, 7 Dec 1990]

(Volume IX, page 587)

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