Lives of the fellows

Henry Leonard Wilson

b.17 May 1897 d.8 April 1968
MRCS LRCP(1925) MB BChir Cantab(1927) MRCP(1927) DPM Eng(1929) MD(1932) FRCP(1943)

Henry Leonard Wilson was born at Sheffield, the only child of Cecil Henry Wilson, MP, JP, gold and silver refiner, of Sheffield, and Sarah Catherine Wilson (née Turner), daughter of Leonard Turner, phrenologist, of Rotherham. His father was Labour MP for the Attercliffe division of Sheffield from 1922 to 1944 with a short break from 1931; he was a director of the Sheffield Smelting Company but resigned from the firm in 1915 with a conscientious objection to the firm’s making cartridges in the First World War. Henry Wilson’s aunt, Dr. Helen M. Wilson, qualified MB from the Royal Free Hospital in 1889 and gained her London MD in 1893, being one of the first five women to achieve this degree; she worked in Vienna as a postgraduate and was the first woman doctor to practise in Sheffield.

They were a Congregationalist family with Quaker leanings, and Wilson was sent to a Quaker school, Stramongate, Kendal, where he acquired a lifelong passion for the Lake District. He left school in 1914 to work in a Bank and train for the family business, but soon afterwards conscription was decreed and, as a conscientious objector, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. After the war, and strongly influenced by it, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to study medicine, and took honours in physiology. It was then that he became a member of the Society of Friends. At St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, he won the Bentley and Skynner Prizes and the Fearnsides Scholarship in Nervous Diseases, and proxime accessit in the Raymond Horton-Smith prize at Cambridge. He qualified MRCS, LRCP in 1925.

At Barts he was house physician to Sir Walter Langdon-Brown, from which point his career took a more specific direction. He became clinical assistant at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (1927), registrar and resident medical officer at Maida Vale Hospital (1927), senior assistant physician at the Retreat, York (1929-31), medical superintendent at Bowden House, Harrow, under Hugh Crichton-Miller (1931), physician to the Institute of Medical Psychology and clinical assistant in Psychological Medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (1933).

In 1936 he joined the Department of Neurology at the London Hospital as clinical assistant to George Riddoch and Russell Brain. Six years later the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry was formed, and he became physician; he held this appointment from 1942 until he retired in 1962, having been senior consultant physician in the Department since Brain’s retirement in 1961. He was President of the Section of Psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1962/63.

His published work included many contributions to the Lancet, British Medical Journal, The Practitioner, the London Hospital Gazette and specialised psychiatric journals, and he was expert in the psychiatric analysis of historical and literary characters (e.g. ‘Some lunatics of literature’ and ‘Milton’s reaction to his blindness’). He was Examiner for the Royal College of Physicians for 1951-4, 1955 and 1959-62.

Wilson was a pioneer of modern psychiatry and was instrumental in constructing the department at the London Hospital, the first of its kind in London; he displayed highly original qualities in establishing a service for psychiatric casualties at the London Hospital during the blitz of the second world war. In addition he was an unusual and many-faceted character, a penetrating and sympathetic teacher, physician and friend, a man of wide culture and erudition, a great humourist, deeply religious but liberal and tolerant in the Quaker tradition. He was a water-colourist of remarkable accomplishment and sensitivity; he became a member of the Medical Art Society during its early formative years and did much to place it on a firm footing as Honorary Secretary from 1947-1950 and Vice President from 1951 until his death. He had a frail physique and suffered much ill-health, but this, if it limited his output, heightened his perceptions and seemed to increase his authority. The severe thoracic deformity, which underlay so much of his ill-health, was a familiar and characteristic part of him; yet it was totally surprising in a man of his energy and vigour.

He married in 1927 Ruth Taylor of Letchworth, whose father, Frederic Taylor, was an administrator of the Society of Friends, and whose mother was a Rowntree of York; they had two sons and one daughter. He lived in Cambridge on his retirement and died in the London Hospital.

JM Lipscomb

(Volume VI, page 467)

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