Lives of the fellows

Alan George Wilson

b.12 August 1936 d.17 June 2012
BSc Lond(1958) MB BS(1961) MRCS LRCP(1961) MRCP(1964) DMRD(1970) FFR(1972) FRCR(1975) FRCP(1985)

Alan Wilson was professor of diagnostic radiology at St George’s Hospital, London. His insatiable curiosity, determination to explore nature and keen sense of humour shone through his many professional achievements and personal interests. Born in Cardiff, the son of Frederick William Wilson, a butcher, and Hilda Maude Wilson, a housewife, he went to Canton High School, where he followed his early interest in natural science. Out of school he enjoyed athletics, rugby and theatrical productions – he played the doctor in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

At King’s College, London, he completed a BSc in physiology before qualifying in medicine. He held house jobs at St George’s and junior posts in neurosurgery and neurology at Atkinson Morley Hospital. He returned to St George’s as a registrar in cardiology and respiratory diseases, but decided to follow his interest in radiology. This took him to the Hammersmith, where he trained under the direction of Robert Steiner [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], a pioneer in academic radiology. Alan soon started research with Celia Oakley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Mike Hughes and Neil Pride on cardiac and respiratory questions, including a challenging study that showed how to determine bronchial dimensions using tantalum dust radiography and stereoscopic radiographic pairs.

He was appointed as a consultant radiologist at St George’s in 1973, but before taking up the position spent a year at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, studying airway dynamics with Jay Nadel, who had developed the tantalum dust radiographic technique. At St George’s Alan dedicated himself to diagnostic radiology, research and teaching, and gained a reputation for excellence in all three areas, particularly interpretation of unusual radiographs based on his encyclopaedic knowledge and ability to think widely. He added many examples to the film library at St George’s, to build up a great teaching resource for the trainees. One such former trainee, Nigel Marchbank, remembers Alan’s contribution to the diagnosis of a 50-year-old man who had recently come from Sri Lanka to Tooting and whose radiograph showed a sclerotic appearance of his bones. Alan asked ‘Which village did he come from?’ It turned out that the man had come from a village in Sri Lanka with high levels of fluoride in the water and had developed fluorosis.

He continued his research on physiological and radiological aspects of heart and lung disease, and was appointed professor of diagnostic radiology in the University of London at St George’s. He was referred to as ‘The Whizz – brain the size of a supercomputer!’ by his trainees at St George’s. Their whispered advice was: ‘If you want to be any good at radiology, stick close to him and soak it up.’ Nigel Marchbank reflects: ‘He taught me so so much, not just about radiology, but also he showed me close up what it was to be a superb doctor.’

Many of Alan’s original contributions to the interpretation of radiographs and radiographic images and their impact on clinical management are brought together in Imaging of diseases of the chest (Chicago, London, Year Book Medical, c.1990), a textbook he co-authored with Peter Armstrong, Paul Dee and David Hensel.

Outside medicine, he had a lifelong fascination with wilderness and unusual fauna and flora. He loved to go to remote places, including deserts, jungles and uninhabited islands with his wife Nicola and daughters Anna and Gemma. On one trip he and Nicola visited the island of Flores in Indonesia and stayed in a Christian/animist village. The electricity supply was connected via a safety pin to a wire strung across a circle of wood and palm leaf huts, and was dismantled as soon as they left! Alan loved to share his vast knowledge of nature, invariably in exchanges full of banter and laughter. His laugh was infectious; with his special sense of humour and quick wit he would point out some absurdity in everyday life, often acting out the part for fun. This sense of fun was reflected in his collection of artefacts from remote places, including a large number of native ceremonial masks, which greeted visitors from nearly every wall in his home.

At his retirement dinner some 300 friends, colleagues and about 100 of his previous trainees came to recognise his many years’ contribution to medicine, radiology and teaching. Most importantly, Alan had a wonderful evening.

Nigel Marchbank
Nicola Wilson
J G Jones
Brian Davis

(Volume XII, page web)

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