Lives of the fellows

William St Clair Symmers

b.16 August 1917 d.25 October 2000
MB BCh BAO Belfast(1939) MD(1946) MRCP(1946) PhD Birm(1953) FRCP(1959) FRCPath(1963) Hon FRCPath(1963) MRCP Edin(1965) FRCPA(1967) MRCPI(1976) FRCPI(1978) DSc Lond(1979) FRCP Edin(1979) FRCS(1979) FFPath RCPI(1982)

William ('Bill') St. Clair Symmers was known throughout the world of medicine and pathology for his erudition, eclectic editing and Edwardian eccentricity. Symmers' parents had met in Cairo. His father held the government chair of pathology. His mother, Marion Macredle, was Australian. Professor W. St. C. Symmers Snr moved to the Musgrave chair of pathology of the Queen's College, Belfast, in 1904. The College acquired University status in 1908.

Bill Symmers was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he demonstrated a precocious aptitude for languages. He entered the Queen's University of Belfast in 1934, graduating with honours in 1939. During his student years, he travelled widely within the pre-war German republic. Later, he served as house surgeon to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, before joining the Royal Navy in 1940. The service took him to Scotland, to North Africa, and to the Atlantic and Pacific zones of hostilities. He married Jean Noble Wright in 1941.

Symmers became a demonstrator in pathology at Guy's Hospital in 1946, then senior assistant and consultant at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. In 1948 he was appointed senior lecturer in pathology at the University of Birmingham, where he was respected for the generous use of his time in teaching postgraduates who had returned from the Armed Forces, but feared as a punctilious, demanding and authoritarian consultant. In 1953, he accepted the chair of pathology at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, later playing an important part in the translation of this hospital and medical school to Fulham Palace Road before his retirement in 1982.

In 1958, G. Payling Wright [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.461] invited Symmers to assist with Systemic pathology, a challenge he accepted gladly. After Payling Wright's death, Symmers became wholly responsible for editing this work: it was to occupy him for the remainder of his life, stamping his personality on a work of international significance. The first edition extended to 2,200 pages. Early in the 1970s, he was persuaded to remain as chief editor of a six volume second edition. When a third edition was demanded in 1986, the work had passed beyond the compass of a single individual and Symmers was granted the title of emeritus editor. Volume 13 was published in 1998.

Even before the publication of the second edition of Systemic pathology, Symmers had shown a penchant for world travel, advising foreign states on behalf of government agencies. His versatile knowledge and his facility with languages led to an international demand for his services as British Council lecturer. He was as well known in Brazil and Melbourne as in London and Belfast. Symmers' forte was a pre-occupation with rare diseases, particularly those of fungal origin, and with lymphoid and connective tissue disorders. A book on the mycoses, planned with N. Plummer [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.474], was never completed. Many of Symmer's original papers displayed a peculiar, even bizarre interest that was quixotic but irresistible.

Symmers was a very private man. He revelled in anecdotes from his student and wartime days. In his later years, he recounted these tales when offered the slightest encouragement. In one favourite story, he told how, walking through the Bavarian woods in 1936, whistling a theme from Rosenkavalier, he chanced on the elderly Richard Strauss. That evening Frau Strauss asked Symmers to join them on a visit to a nearby castle. Seated round a table, he was introduced to a man he recognised as Adolf Hitler.

In another anecdote that drew attention to his fluent German, he described how, during the 1942 to 1943 Mediterranean naval campaign, he was sent ashore to intercede on behalf of a badly wounded British prisoner. The German commander insisted that the wounded man be sent to a prison camp. But a German general passed by and ordered that, because of his wounds, the prisoner be released to the British. The senior officer was Erwin Rommel. Symmers displayed the same aptitude for entertaining tales in his compelling volumes Curiosa (1974) and Exotica (1984).

Symmer's way of life did not allow opportunities to make friends easily. He had an aversion to all sporting activities. He was a bibliophile. His literary interests were complemented by an intense love of music and the arts. Those who knew him best were fascinated by his insistence on old-fashioned forms of speech and writing. Punctilious in courtesy, his voluminous personal correspondence, almost always in his own hand, read as though it came from an nineteenth century scholar rather than from a twentieth century scientist.

After his wife's death, Symmers moved to the ancient Royal Burgh of Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. Here his manner of dress, appropriate to the Strand, contrasted with the more practical clothing of the native Scot. Clinging to an old raincoat and to an ancient woolly scarf but wearing no hat, he was an easily recognised, but solitary figure as he struggled to the market. Of few can it be said 'He was a true man of the world'. Symmers wished to be remembered for this admired characteristic. His colleagues, however, will recall an exceptionally learned and literate physician who was a demanding but cherished friend.

D L Gardner

(Volume XI, page 571)

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