Lives of the fellows

Richard Humphrey Tudor Edwards

b.28 January 1939 d.5 December 2009
BSc Lond(1961) MB BS(1964) MRCS LRCP(1964) MRCP(1966)PhD(1969) FRCP(1976)

Richard Humphrey Tudor Edwards was professor of research and development for health and social care at the University of Wales College of Medicine. Preceding that he was head of the departments of medicine at University College London and at Liverpool University. An eminent scientist and clinician, he was internationally renowned for his work on the physiology of the skeletal muscles and disorders such as muscular dystrophy.

Born in Birmingham, his father was Hywel Islwyn Edwards, the local butcher in Llangollen, North Wales. In later life, his father studied for a degree and became a music teacher. Educated at Llangollen Grammar School, Richard acknowledged his debt to J Rhys Roberts, an inspirational headmaster, who fostered his interest in science. He studied medicine at London University and the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, having won a state scholarship in 1957. Initially attracted to respiratory medicine, he contrived to combine this with his love for mountains and spent time at a French research station, the Observatoire Vallot, in the Mont Blanc area, studying the effects of altitude on breathing for his PhD thesis.

After house jobs at the Middlesex Hospital between 1964 and 1965, he spent a year at the National Heart Hospital and then joined the staff of the Hammersmith Hospital in 1966 as a registrar. He remained at the Hammersmith for three years and began the research into skeletal muscle that was to be the main focus of his life’s work. In 1970 he spent a sabbatical at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden as a Wellcome Trust Swedish research fellow. Here he learnt the technique of needle muscle biopsy, crucial to the study of muscle chemistry both in health and disease because as it was a far less invasive way of obtaining samples and meant that patients could be tested frequently without harm.

Returning to the Hammersmith as a lecturer and honorary consultant physician in 1973, he worked closely with David K Hill and Victor Dubowitz on developing a comprehensive approach to the study of human muscle disorders. Due to their work, the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America funded a neuromuscular research centre (the first time they had done so outside the USA) and the Jerry Lewis research laboratories at Hammersmith, and they were able to recruit an outstanding team. Edwards, at this time, was responsible for the invention of a hand-held myometer for the measurement of muscle force in different muscle groups and a special fixed chair for gauging the isometric force of muscles such as the quadriceps.

In 1976, he was appointed professor of human metabolism at University College Hospital (UCH); at 36 he was one of the youngest professors in the university. Here he worked closely with patients suffering from disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and muscular dystrophy. In collaboration with Doug Wilkie [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.621] at University College London, he used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study muscle metabolism. During his time there, the muscular dystrophy clinic and metabolic unit on ward 1/1 at UCH became very well known and his rapport with his patients was such that he remained in contact with them and their families for many years.

He was made head of the department of medicine in 1982. Tragically in the same year, his son Tomos, then aged 12, was killed in a traffic accident. Possibly feeling that both he and his wife needed to move nearer to their beloved Wales, he accepted the post of head of the department of medicine at Liverpool University two years later. With renewed vigour he increased the size of the department enormously and introduced the sophisticated techniques he had been piloting in London. In particular he developed the first whole body magnetic resonance imaging system in Liverpool to study skeletal muscle. He also played a significant part in organising the Wolfson Centre for Inherited Disease at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry. It became capable of providing care for patients with neuromuscular disorders from Shropshire and all of North Wales.

While in Liverpool, he also endeavoured to completely restructure the medical undergraduate curriculum. An advocate of ‘problem based learning’, he managed to develop a model which was eventually adopted by many other medical schools in the UK. One of his strengths was his ability to mentor junior colleagues and he is credited with inspiring a whole generation of gifted researchers in his field.

In 1996 he was appointed professor of research and development for health and social care at the University of Wales College of Medicine (now merged to become part of Cardiff University). He stayed in post for three years, during which he played a key role in progressing medical research in Wales.

During his career he published over 220 peer reviewed scientific articles. An enthusiastic supporter of the journal Neuromuscular disorders, he was one of its foundation associate editors. He also took a lead in making his research known to the wider community outside the medical world by giving media interviews such as ‘When rest isn’t a cure for tiredness; chronic fatigue sufferers are being advised that taking to their beds might make the illness worse’ (Daily Telegraph 2 June 1991) and ‘Try a daily siesta to give your back a lift’ (Daily Mail 25 July 1995).

After retirement he threw his formidable energy and enthusiasm into developing his home and gardens at Nantmor, Beddgelert. Converting an old ruin according to traditional Welsh and National Park rules, he also planted numerous trees and managed to regenerate a long dormant medieval oak forest. He was very fond of music and also everything Welsh. Friends remembered visits to him and his wife, enjoying their warmth and hospitality and being taken for ‘long fast walks in the damp hills’.

In 1966 he married Eleri Wyn née Roberts, whose father John Ernest, was a headmaster. She survived him when he died suddenly and unexpectedly at home, together with their daughter Rhiannon, son-in-law Paul, and grandchildren, William and Non.

RCP editor

[The Times 4 February 2010; BMJ 2010 341 6774 - accessed 11 March 2015; Neuromusc dis 2010 20 220-1 - accessed 11 April 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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