Lives of the fellows

Rupert Allan Willis

b.24 December 1898 d.26 March 1980
MB BS Melb(1922) MD DSc(1930) FRCP*(1942) FRACP(1961) FRCS(1961) LLD Glasg(1962) Hon FRCPath(1970) Hon MD Perugia

Rupert Willis was born of English stock and reared in Yarram, Victoria, a village about one hundred and forty miles from Melbourne. He received his early schooling from his father and this had a great influence in moulding his attitudes to life and work; he did not attend a school until the age of ten. In 1922 he graduated in medicine from Melbourne University - in the same class as Roy Cameron and Macfarlane Burnet - and spent several years in general practice in Tasmania before returning in 1927 to Melbourne as the medical superintendent of the Austin Hospital. It was there that Willis, who had no formal training in pathology, developed his interests in the morphology and behaviour of tumours in man. In 1930 he was appointed pathologist to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and lecturer in pathology at Melbourne University. He was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship in 1933 — 1934 and worked with Sir Arthur Keith in the Royal College of Surgeons in London; this experience stimulated his interest in the embryological aspects of pathology and influenced much of his subsequent investigative work. In 1945 he returned to London as the Sir William H Collins professor of pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons and three years later became pathologist to the Royal Cancer Hospital. In 1950 he accepted the invitation to the chair of pathology in Leeds in succession to Matthew J Stewart but ill-health forced him to retire prematurely in 1955.

Freed of administrative chores, which he did not enjoy, Willis had a new lease of life in his ‘retirement’ at Nancledra in Cornwall. In the Riverside Laboratory - in the back garden of his cottage - he continued to do experimental work in association with JW Cook, who was then vice-chancellor of Exeter University. His writing of books and papers was prolific and he received a steady flow of tissue sections of many problem cases for his opinion from all over the world. In 1959 he was appointed as honorary consultant pathologist to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund where he set up a tumour reference collection which now consists of over eight thousand documented specimens of a wide variety of human and animal tumours and is appropriately housed in the University department of pathology in Leeds. In 1963-1964 he was the first occupant of the Macfarlane chair of experimental medicine at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

Willis published about one hundred and forty papers which reflect the breadth of his interests: infectious diseases, disorders of growth, experimental carcinogenesis, the comparative pathology of neoplastic and non-neoplastic diseases, and the transplantation of tissues in rodents. However, his main and abiding interest was tumour pathology and his major contributions were published in textbooks. The Spread of Tumours in the Human Body (1934, third edition 1973) was based entirely on personal observations made through autopsy dissections. The Pathology of Tumours (1948, fourth edition 1967) has been translated into a number of languages and was a major reference text for practising histopathologists throughout the world. The Borderland of Embryology and Pathology (1958, second edition 1963) was Willis’ own favourite work, and he was actively engaged with IMP Dawson in writing a new edition at the time of his death. The Pathology of the Tumours of Children was published in 1962, and the third edition of The Principles of Pathology and Bacteriology, a textbook for undergraduates written in collaboration with his son Trevor, in 1972.

Rupert Willis made an immense contribution to human tumour pathology; his clearly expressed views, always concise, sometimes dogmatic and uncompromising, provoked his readers to think more deeply about their day-to-day diagnostic problems. He had a profound influence on a generation of histopathologists. His work helped much to formulate the modern approach to tumour classification and histogenesis.

Many organizations and institutions recognized his achievements: his honours included an MD of the University of Perugia, an LLD of the University of Glasgow and the fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists.

Willis lived a very full life and he had many extra-professional interests, including music, botany, petrology, pottery, photography and philately. His enthusiasm for his hobbies was highly infectious and he loved to share them with many friends of all ages. Great personal charm and an open, frank, warm and unassuming manner, endeared him to all who knew him and he had a very special way with children and young people; sons and daughters of his friends and colleagues have lasting happy memories of times spent with him.

Willis became a legend in his own lifetime to thousands of pathologists and clinicians but those who were privileged to know him remember with great affection a thoughtful, kind, compassionate and loyal friend. During his last few years, which were spent in his daughter’s house in the Wirral in Cheshire, he again endured with courage and stoicism a chonic and at times severely debilitating illness. An obituary of Rupert Willis would be incomplete without a reference to his wife, Margaret, who was his constant and devoted companion and partner until her death in 1962.

Sir Alastair Currie

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[Brit.med.J., 1980, 280, 1150 & 1191; Lancet, 1980, 1, 940]

(Volume VII, page 608)

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