Lives of the fellows

Robert Baird Wilson

b.11 February 1917 d.19 October 1998
BSc Glasg(1937) MB ChB(1940) MRCP(1947) MRCP Edin(1961) FRCP Glasg(1967) FRCP Edin(1969) FRCP(1970)

Much of the credit for the development of post-war medicine and its subspecialities in Dumfries in the early days of the NHS can be attributed to the work of Robert Baird Wilson and his senior colleague, James Laurie. Wilson was the archetypal general physician, but he used his special knowledge of diabetes to introduce a highly regarded service for diabetic patients into the area.

Robert Wilson, whose forebears were farmers, was born at West Calder, Midlothian, Scotland. He attended Lesmahagow and Wishaw High Schools, before going on to the University of Glasgow in 1934. He graduated BSc in 1937 and MB ChB with honours in 1940. He passed most of his professional examinations with distinction and was awarded the Stockman medal and West of Scotland RAMC memorial prize.

After house officer posts in Glasgow’s Royal and Western Infirmaries, he served in the RAMC from 1942 to 1946. His field ambulance, the 14th Indian Light Field Ambulance, was in action at Imphal on the India-Burma border, where the Japanese invasion was held back in 1944. He ended his service in India in a base hospital in South India as a graded physician. On his return to the UK he was a medical specialist and officer commanding a military hospital.

After he was demobilized, he held posts as a clinical assistant in the Royal and Western Infirmaries in Glasgow and was then appointed junior assistant physician at the Victoria Infirmary. His experience in these posts rounded off his training in general (internal) medicine, which he complemented by taking a special interest in diabetes mellitus.

In 1953 he was appointed consultant physician in Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary. When the post-graduate centre was established, Wilson was made area post-graduate adviser. In keeping with his ethos, he introduced predominately clinical programmes for his trainees and students and he also started refresher courses for established general practitioners.

He became a member and was for some years treasurer of the National Association of Clinical Tutors. When the Scottish Society of Physicians met for the second time in Dumfries in 1978, he was its president.

Wilson was a first class clinician. He was impressively well-informed (he had a remarkable memory), shrewd and unlikely to be overimpressed by the latest trends. He was a considerate and compassionate physician, whose calm demeanour inspired confidence in his patients.

Surprisingly, despite an interest in literature and poetry, he wrote very little. But the articles which he did publish, on the insulins and on coronary disease in the elderly in a rural area, were lucid, informative and elegantly written. He admired his own mentor A W Harrington - in his day a much respected clinician and teacher in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Perhaps some of Harrington’s cynicism rubbed off on him and curbed his interest in personal research and publication.

He was antipathetic to committee work, administration and management. Yet, he efficiently and effectively discharged the responsibilities devolved on him by the department, hospital and health board. It was a measure of the esteem in which he was held that his peers elected him to the council of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Robert Wilson spent 45 years in Dumfries. He voiced no regrets that he did not pursue the academic career predicted for him. The appointment of consultant physician in Dumfries proved to be a congenial and fulfilling one for him. He had an affinity with the people of South West Scotland and he was well liked and respected by them.

He met his first wife, Barbara, a physiotherapist, on the same draft for India towards the end of 1942. They married shortly after they arrived there. They had one son, two daughters and seven grandchildren. He was devastated by Barbara’s untimely death after 28 years of marriage. He married his second wife Alison in 1972. They had two daughters, of whom the elder is a medical graduate. At a critical time, Alison provided a happy and secure home life for him. He was justifiably proud that his five children were all university graduates.

Robert Wilson was a companionable and sociable man. He had an engaging sense of humour. He had a life-long interest in gardening about which he was unusually knowledgeable. His large garden at his home Mile Ash on the outskirts of Dumfries gave him great pleasure. He was a long-standing member and past president of the world famous Dumfries Burns Club. For much of his life he was a keen curler, until he had to undergo a coronary by-pass operation. He was one of the most senior and loyal members of the Western Medical Club, a dining club in Glasgow, and secretary of his medical year club.

He noticed the first signs of a glandular malignancy a few months before he died. He faced his inevitable death with commendable courage and composure, tended at home in the last few weeks by Alison and his family.

J E McGirr

[Brit.med.J., 1999,318,1424]

(Volume XI, page 629)

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