Lives of the fellows

Kenneth Geoffrey Wormsley

b.12 January 1928 d.18 January 2015
BSc Lond(1947) MB BS(1951) MRCP(1956) MD(1961) FRCP(1973) DSc(1974)

Ken Wormsley was a consultant physician and gastroenterologist at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. He was born in Bielefeld, Westphalia, Germany, the son of Alfred Worms, a dental surgeon, and Edith Worms née Bornheim. Nine years later, his family emigrated to England. He attended Leighton Park School in Reading and gained a place at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, where he established himself as a talented medical student, winning prizes in physiology, anatomy and pathology. In 1947, he gained a BSc in chemistry and qualified in medicine in 1951. After house jobs in Middlesex, he spent his two-year period of National Service in various British military hospitals in Germany.

Returning to England in 1955, ‘KGW’ – as he was affectionately known in later years – was appointed as a junior lecturer to W R Spurrell at Guy’s. This would appear to have been his first exposure to gastroenterology and research, both of which would consume his life in medicine over the next four decades.

He passed the MRCP in 1956 and, two years later, moved to Addenbrooke’s Hospital as a registrar to Alexander Peter Dick [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.152], where he obtained further clinical and research experience. In 1960, he was appointed as a senior registrar in Manchester working for Henry Taylor Howat [Munk’s Roll, VolXI, p.278], at that time the leading researcher in pancreatic physiology in Britain. This certainly sparked off a keen interest in the pancreas that lasted throughout KGW’s career. In 1961, he was awarded an MD for his thesis on the investigation of malabsorption. With the exception of 1963, when he worked with Morton Irvine Grossman [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.231] in Los Angeles on gastric physiology, he continued in Manchester until 1968, before moving to Sheffield to take up the post of senior lecturer in gastroenterology.

The year 1970 marked KGW’s appointment as a consultant physician and gastroenterologist in Dundee and the dawn of gastrointestinal research on Tayside. Over the next 23 years, he single-handedly built up a highly productive department, publishing numerous papers encompassing original work on a wide variety of topics, notably upper gastrointestinal and pancreatic physiology, the treatment of peptic ulcer disease, cancer of the alimentary tract and the investigation of new drugs. He developed an international reputation, as reflected in his appointments as chairman of the research committee of the British Society of Gastroenterology (from 1970 to 1979) and president of the European Pancreatic Club in 1974, as well as being awarded the Sir Arthur Hurst lecture at the British Society of Gastroenterology in 1986.

He willingly immersed himself in medicine and in research. Both offered the stimulation essential to nourish his enquiring mind. And his reward for his hard work was ultimately the respect and admiration of his colleagues.

KGW never became a professor. This was hardly surprising given his disinterest in management and his disdain for hospital politics. He rightly considered that there were far more important objectives and was certainly not one to worship false idols. He was perhaps fortunate to practise medicine at a time when clinicians carrying out research were valued and allowed time to develop and put their ideas into practise unhindered, when they were able to appoint junior staff on the basis of their own judgement, and when employers readily permitted them time to lecture at meetings at home and abroad without a mention of targets. It is doubtful he would have flourished in the current climate.

To understand KGW required patience. When he rose to speak at meetings, he could never have been accused of being mealy-mouthed. Blunt, always to the point, like a dog with a bone, he spread unease amongst those who were less well acquainted with the data. But, for KGW, it was all an academic exercise, and he never made personal attacks. He applied the same intellectual rigour when invited to referee papers and may well have been a favourite of editors when they preferred a rejection. Certainly, he was brusque and never suffered fools gladly. It was folly, though, to judge him on first impressions. With time, his attributes came to the fore. Those who showed commitment and enthusiasm were richly rewarded by his kindness and unswerving loyalty. Fundamentally, he was a decent and honest man.

He was modest, too. Despite being a leading figure in British and European gastroenterology, he had no airs and graces. The only clues to his status were in the sharpness of his mind, his confidence when tackling difficult questions, his control of an argument and his recall of detail – as well as his legendary skill in quickly locating an obscure paper amongst the notorious clutter of his office in Ninewells Hospital.

In recognition of his achievements, his retirement in 1993 was celebrated in fine style with a festschrift at the Royal Society of Medicine. Speakers travelled from all over the world and, in their presentations, revealed the sheer scale of his research interests, which included pancreatic carcinogensis in rats given soya flour, gastric mucosal cell turnover, back diffusion of hydrogen ions in the stomach, pancreatic physiology, fat metabolism, and of course, the treatment of peptic ulcers. One of the contributors drew attention to KGW’s propensity to develop bees in his bonnet. This was indeed true, as evidenced by his arguments in favour of scepticism regarding the role of Helicobacter pylori in ulcer disease and his trenchant views about the dangers of gastric malignancy in patients receiving drugs that profoundly inhibit acid secretion. His conclusions – always supported by a detailed review of the literature and argued cogently – were unpalatable to those with a vested interest, particularly certain sections of the pharmaceutical industry, but he never flinched in the face of their harassment. In fact, he appeared to enjoy the fight. Perhaps he even courted controversy.

After the festschrift, a dinner was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was typical of KGW that in his speech he said little about himself and a great deal about others. Strangely, for someone who had for much of his life lived in the limelight, he seemed somewhat overawed by the occasion. The humility that he exhibited that evening was poignant.

He was exceptionally generous – not only to his juniors, but also to the nursing and secretarial staff. Christmas, weddings and births were always remembered with a gift. Every August, he took his medical team to the Edinburgh Festival, starting early and trooping around the various venues into the early hours of the following day. He planned the events meticulously to ensure a suitable mixture of comedy, jazz, theatre and classical music, while always finishing with the Cambridge Footlights. He paid for everything, including meals – usually at his favoured Indian restaurants.

He had a penchant for telling jokes, often near to the bone. As a young man, he was fond of dancing – favouring, it seems, the jitterbug – and played tennis to an unspecified standard. He undertook a Grand Tour of Europe to improve his appreciation of art and was particularly interested in Impressionist painting. Although he liked classical music – especially Schubert, Beethoven and Mahler – he preferred jazz and was a regular visitor to Ronnie Scott’s.

However, quite when he found the time for these interests remains a mystery. He worked exceptionally hard. The length of his clinics at Ninewells Hospital was legendary, beginning around 12.30 and lasting past 7pm, during which time nearly 100 patients would be seen. At the end, he would precariously balance the medical records onto the seat and foot-rest of a wheelchair and trudge along the corridors. It was an extraordinary sight for anyone approaching as both the wheelchair and KGW were hidden from view by the towers of case notes.

Those of us who had the privilege of working with KGW will never forget our good fortune.

He died from Parkinson’s disease. He was predeceased by his second wife, Sigrid, who cared for him with extreme kindness and dedication throughout his prolonged illness. He was survived by his two adopted children and grandchildren.

Eric Boyd
James Penston

[BMJ 2015 350 2628 – accessed 10 December 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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