Lives of the fellows

James Dickinson Woods

b.22 October 1917 d.9 September 2008
MB BCh Witwatersrand(1941) MRCP(1949) MRCPSG(1949) FRACP(1972) FRCP(1976)

James Dickinson Woods, who set up the coronary care unit at Fremantle Hospital, Perth, Australia, spent the first part of his career in South Africa. He was born in Natal, South Africa, the son of William James Woods, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and a graduate of Queen’s College, Belfast. Woods senior had arrived in the Cape in 1897 and enlisted as an Army surgeon in the Boer War in 1899. After the war, he practised in Pietermaritzburg. Woods’ mother, Mabel Eleanor Kathleen Dickinson, moved to South Africa from Devon at the turn of the last century to join her two brothers at a family property at Nels Rust. Woods had two sisters: Molly was a headmistress, while his sister Isobel was also a doctor, but she died young. He was educated at Pietermaritzburg College and Michaelhouse, and then studied medicine at Witwatersrand University, qualifying in 1941.

He then joined the South African Medical Corps, serving as a captain in North Africa and Italy with the 8th Army under Field Marshal Montgomery. Following his demobilisation, he worked for a couple of years at Addington Hospital in Durban. He then went to the UK and, in 1949, became a member of the Royal College of Physicians of London and of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Returning to South Africa, he was appointed as a consultant physician at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg and subsequently at King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban. In a letter left for his grandchildren, he described his time at King Edward Hospital: ‘…with the aid of two interns, I looked after about 160 patients for my three part-time “chiefs”… this new post proved fascinating…[there were] so many diseases never previously encountered, it seemed only a matter of time before I saw every condition described in the textbooks. Zulu illnesses were often severe due to late admission and delayed treatment.’

Later, when a new Zulu hospital opened in Edendale, he accepted an offer to become the first full time senior physician. It was at Edendale that he developed his research interest in coronary disease, later describing his time there as ‘one of the most interesting periods of my life’. Together with Bill Laurie, the senior pathologist at Edendale Hospital, he studied the coronary circulation at post-mortem by X-raying the heart after its vessels had been filled with radio-opaque medium. He was able to show to his satisfaction blockages or narrowings, also anastomoses. In two papers published in the Lancet in 1958, Laurie and Woods described normal hearts with good anastomotic supply, only seen in a quarter of those patients with coronary disease (Lancet 1958 Feb 1:1[7014]:231-2; Oct 18:2[7051]:812-6). The study suggested that the presence of anastomoses was an inherited asset. The articles excited a lot of comment and correspondence.

Disagreeing with the policies of the National Party, elected by the whites-only electorate in South Africa, he moved to Canada, to the University of Alberta, Edmonton, as a research fellow. He repeated his observations and found the same coronary circulation pattern in Canadian hearts as he had seen in his Zulu studies.

He decided to migrate to Australia and found himself teaming up again with Laurie, who had by this time moved to Perth. Woods was a physician at Fremantle Hospital over two decades, between 1960 and 1980. He maintained his interest in coronary disease and published a succession of papers in partnership with Laurie. He set up a coronary care unit at Fremantle Hospital and trained a generation of residents and registrars in cardiovascular medicine. He published observational studies on myocardial infarction associated with Coxsackie viral infection. No one would have predicted the subsequent plethora of studies on the role of infection and inflammation on coronary disease, implying a role for immune cells and mediators in atherosclerotic disease.

After his retirement from Fremantle Hospital, he continued in private practice and maintained his interest in the role of viruses and the heart, and of infection and inflammation in the genesis of coronary atherosclerosis. Due to the frustrating bureaucratic demands of the health insurance industry, he closed shop and stopped practising medicine altogether in 1985.

He wrote a series of papers for the Bulletin of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, including one on his visit to Isandlwana, site of the opening battle of the Anglo-Zulu War. On 22 January 1879, the redcoats, under the command of Lord Chelmsford, were ambushed and annihilated by Zulu warriors armed only with spears and shields. In the article, Woods described the details of the war, touchingly conveyed to him by a Zulu boy whom he had met on his visit to the battlefield.

He had many interests. He was a keen handyman who made working models of steam engines. He was a sailor, golfer and photographer. His magnificent nineteenth century house in Perth was lined with bookshelves, as well as the considerable collection of African collectables, kelims and rare carpets which he and his wife had collected over the years.

In June 1946, he married Florence Suzanne Breytenbach-Rossiter, who belonged to an establishment Transvaal Afrikaner family. Affectionately known as ‘Honey’, she was a physiotherapist, whom he had met during his university years at Witwatersrand. They had three children: Peter James Woods (a geologist), Susan Kathleen (a librarian) and Stephen William Woods (an ophthalmologist). In his latter years Woods developed atrial fibrillation and cardiac failure. He was treated with a pacemaker, but he became increasingly unable to negotiate the stairs to his bedroom. He was hospitalised and died peacefully in his sleep. He was survived by Honey, their children and six grandchildren.

Krishna Somers

(Volume XII, page web)

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