Lives of the fellows

William O'Brien

b.18 October 1917 d.20 August 2000
OBE(1966) MRCS LRCP(1940) MB BS Lond(1941) MRCP(1948) MD(1950) FRCP(1967)

Major General Bill O'Brien was a distinguished British Army physician of academic bent who had a world-wide experience of internal medicine. His special interests were in gastroenterology and tropical medicine, and his important studies of tropical sprue led his appointment as OBE. He was a brilliant teacher at the bedside, and even more so in his office, where he could smoke his large pipe, but he was an anxious lecturer to larger audiences and uncomfortable with some military formality and ceremonial.

He was born in Glasgow, to a physician of the same name, and educated at Douai School and Charing Cross Hospital, graduating in 1941, and being called up for war service early in 1942. He served as regimental medical officer to the 1st Batallion The Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment for the rest of the war in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and North West Europe. He was transferred to the unemployed list in 1946 and returned to Charing Cross Hospital for postgraduate training, becoming a senior registrar there and senior lecturer at University College Khartoum from 1952 to 1954. He had proceeded MD with distinction in 1950.

He rejoined the Royal Army Medical Corps with a regular commission in 1954, and was posted to British Military Hospital Accra in the Gold Coast until 1958. After a spell as assistant professor of tropical medicine at Millbank, his major interests bore fruit between 1961 and 1964 in Singapore with his seminal work on tropical sprue, notably in soldiers serving in the Borneo campaign.

He was professor of military medicine at the Royal Army Medical College for an unusually long, but very successful and appropriate, period from 1967 to 1975, save for one rather unhappy year in a command of a hospital in Germany.

He had become a MRCP examiner in 1974, and been promoted to brigadier in 1973. He was advanced to major general in 1975 when he became director of army medicine and honorary physician to the Queen.

After his retirement in 1977 he commuted regularly for some years to Dublin to teach tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons, and played tennis and cultivated his land in the Sussex Downs, before moving in his later years to Cumbria to be near some of his family. He had married Monica Rigby in 1941, and she survived him by only a few weeks. They had three sons and two daughters.

G O Cowan

(Volume XI, page 429)

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