b.20 February 1918 d.8 December 2005
MB BS Lond(1941) MRCS LRCP(1941) MRCP(1947) MD(1947) DCH(1948) FRCP(1969) FRCPCH(1998)
‘Sam’ Weller was a consultant paediatrician in south east London and Bath. He was born in Honan, north China, where his parents were Baptist missionaries. He was educated at Chefoo Mission School in China. He excelled academically: he had in his possession numerous worthy, leather-bound volumes, inscribed as prizes for many subjects over many years. (It would be more impressive if any of this improving literature looked as if it had ever been read.) At 16 he returned to England to attend the sixth form at Dulwich College. It had never occurred to him that he would be anything but a missionary, but the headmaster encountered him on the stairs and informed him that he was going to be a doctor. Sam (as he was, by this time, universally known) appears to have accepted this as non-negotiable divine guidance from an authority figure, and proceeded to win a national scholarship to University College Hospital for his medical training. On the way, he told the school that he wanted to do an A Level in what is now called religious studies, but was informed that there was no teacher for the subject. A son of Baptist missionaries is undaunted by such considerations: he did it on his own and obtained a distinction, for which he suspected the school never forgave him.
Medical training in wartime took him for a while to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, where he had an argument with a student nurse about a particular issue (concerning tuberculous meningitis in children). Unaccustomed to being wrong, he told her that, if it turned out that she was right, he would become a paediatrician. She was and he did. It took them all of six days to become engaged, and the marriage lasted 64 years.
War service as an RAMC captain in the 51st Highland Division took him to El Alamein, Sicily and Normandy, as an infantry doctor working in a field ambulance. He contrived to be wounded twice, on both occasions in the same leg, which he regarded as rather convenient. He spent the next 60 years wandering around with quite a bit of German hardware embedded in his right tibia, and was deeply disappointed that it failed to bleep when going through X-ray machines at airports.
After the war he returned to Great Ormond Street for paediatric training and was appointed as a consultant in the Bromley and Dartford groups in 1950. He shared the vast swathe of south east London and north east Kent, running from the Thames at Joyce Green Hospital to Sydenham Children’s Hospital, with just two colleagues. In 1963 he moved to the Bath clinical area, where he remained until his retirement in 1983. He was president of the section of paediatrics of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1978 to 1979.
His publications included work on paediatric liver disorders, translocation Down’s syndrome and angioteratoma corporis diffusum. He also studied the logistics of peripheral clinics in the Bath area, and concluded that it made a great deal more sense for one able-bodied doctor to drive the required miles to see 25 patients, than for the same number of harassed mothers to pile an ailing child, assorted siblings and an oversize push chair into a local bus and struggle into Bath. He was invariably gentle, patient and, wherever possible, reassuring with his patients and their parents, though he reserved a special tone of half-suppressed irritation for mothers who insisted on answering for their teenage children. He also said that experienced mothers who said of a child ‘There is something wrong with this one; he is not like the others’ were always right, and a doctor with an appropriate helping of humility should keep looking until he found out what the trouble was.
He wrote for popular child health-care magazines, including a problem page for parents. On one occasion a letter arrived, bewailing how confused a particular mother was by the ‘explanation’ of her child’s condition offered her by the consultant she had seen the previous week. Recognising himself as the insufficiently enlightening specialist, he wrote, in suitably chastened vein, ‘Dear Mrs X, I think what your doctor was trying to say was…’ He was always ready to tell this story against himself, but the situation was unusual: generally speaking he was an excellent communicator – clear, logical and entertaining. Generations of junior staff have benefited.
His missionary genes surfaced occasionally, particularly when he spent a year, from 1969 to 1970, as professor of paediatrics at Makerere University in Uganda. He did a good deal to revise the teaching curriculum, which was based on English textbooks that devoted pages to appendicitis (virtually unknown in Africa), but gave ten lines to malaria. He also had to advise on child health care throughout the country, which involved a great deal of travelling to remote areas. He returned to England with rather different views on what constituted significant illness and, until he readjusted, had to be restrained from discharging everybody from his outpatient clinics. Overall he greatly enjoyed his career, which answered to his conviction that we are put into this world to serve others. After his retirement he continued to do locums both in England and abroad (mainly Gibraltar and the Middle East).
Throughout his career and after his retirement he was much involved with Bath Abbey (where he was a lay reader) and with the British and Foreign Bible Society (being secretary of the local branch). His numerous other commitments included the local hospice, the Church of England Children’s Society, the bereavement service Cruse and work with the homeless.
Work took up much of his time, but he loved to read, became homicidal if anybody else put a piece in the jigsaw he was doing, and was what he himself described as an ‘enthusiastic but cheerfully awful’ golfer. He is survived by his wife Irene and four children.
(Volume XII, page web)
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