Lives of the fellows

Sylvia Madeleine Watkins

b.5 February 1938 d.2015
BA Oxon(1958) BM BCh(1961) MRCP(1964) DM(1973) FRCP(1980)

Sylvia Watkins was a consultant physician and medical oncologist at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage. Once she retired she worked for the charity Tropical Health and Education (THET), helping the development of postgraduate education at several African medical schools. She was born in Manchester, the daughter of Kenneth Harold Watkins, a urological surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary, and Irmgard Watkins née Herrmann. There was a history of medicine in the family – six generations of Watkins had been doctors, beginning with Timothy Watkins, a surgeon apothecary in the 18th century. Her brother, Peter Watkins, also became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

She was educated in Fribourg, Switzerland, and then at Loreto School, Manchester. Gifted academically and determined to be a doctor, she gained a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, and then at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School. She qualified BM BCh in 1961 and held junior posts at North Middlesex Hospital, St Bartholomew’s and Leicester Royal Infirmary. At this stage of her career she wanted to pursue a career in neurology. Using her linguistic skills (she was fluent in German and French), she worked as a registrar in neurology at the University of Heidelberg from 1964 to 1965.

On her return to the UK, she persevered with general internal medicine as a registrar and then a senior registrar at the Royal Free Hospital in London. During this period she undertook research into lymphocyte function in patients with cancer, and was awarded the DM in 1973.

Sylvia was appointed as a consultant physician at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage in 1973, in acute general medicine. She had a reputation as an exceptionally kind and caring physician, qualities much valued by her patients. For a period she also undertook responsibility for diabetes as well, until appropriate arrangements were in place following a reorganisation within the hospital. She was then able to take over the care of cancer patients, for which she had received special training at the Royal Free. The oncology unit which she established acquired a high reputation amongst patients and their relatives, as well as recognition by her hospital colleagues. Sylvia also maintained her interest in research, resulting in several published papers. Her gift as a teacher at the bedside was well recognised and she was appointed as an examiner for both the Cambridge University Medical School and for the Royal College of Physicians.

Sylvia had always been interested in medicine in the developing world, and in her retirement she offered her services to THET, which had been founded by Sir Eldryd Parry. With great enthusiasm she threw herself into managing the Royal College of Physicians’ generous grant to THET for postgraduate development in African medical schools at Kumasi and Mbarara, Uganda. She sent gifted and committed trainee physicians to Mbarara, each for one to two years, and nurtured and encouraged them. One of the doctors she worked with summed up Sylvia’s approach: ‘I will never forget Sylvia’s enthusiasm and genuine care, but most of all her smile and warmth.’

Outside medicine, she was an accomplished violinist and music was an important part of her life. She learned to play the violin at an early age: her mother introduced both her and her brother Peter to Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, playing at Belle Vue Zoo in the post-war years. In her teens, she played in the National Youth Orchestra, and at Oxford in the University Orchestra. Later in her career, she acquired and treasured an 18th century Klotz violin.

She joined the Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, where her contributions were much appreciated. She worked a great deal behind the scenes to ensure the success of their concerts. Sylvia was also much involved with founding and supporting a local hospice (the Garden House Hospice in Letchworth), and the orchestra performed several concerts for its benefit.

Sylvia also derived much pleasure playing and performing chamber music, and played in string quartets with several different groups. She attended Dartington and subsequently Grittleton summer chamber music courses for over 30 years. On retirement, she decided that she wanted to improve her playing further and so embarked on a series of lessons with the distinguished teacher Paul Barritt. She also organised several chamber music concerts at the Royal College of Physicians in aid of THET.

Opera was another great love. She developed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the countless productions she saw in the UK and abroad, and in the late 1990s she was appointed, for one year, to the panel judging the Laurence Olivier Awards for opera.

Her work was always underpinned by her strong Roman Catholic faith. On several occasions she joined pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and witnessed the problems faced by the Palestinian Al-Quds University medical school in East Jerusalem resulting from the Israeli-built wall. In 1994, she became a member of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, serving as secretary to the Westminster section of the order.

Sylvia never married, but she had close, loving relationships with her nephews and nieces, and with her many godchildren.

Peter John Watkins

[Information from Sir Eldryd Parry, Michael Willoughby, Keith Berry, Louis van den Berg and Tim Fowler; BMJ 2015 351 5031 – accessed 4 November 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List