Lives of the fellows

Edward Miles Vaughan Williams

b.8 August 1918 d.31 August 2016
BSc Oxon(1946) BM BCh(1947) DM(1953) DSc(1961) MRCP(1979) Hon MD Sorbonne(1982) FRCP(1984) Hon FACCP

Miles Vaughan Williams was a pharmacologist and a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford. He is chiefly known for his Vaughan Williams Classification of Antiarrhythmic Drugs (established in 1970), which is still used today in schools of pharmacology.

A complex and multi-talented man, he began his life in Bangalore, India, where his father, Arthur (a cousin of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams), was an engineer in charge of the steam engines of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway. His mother was Amy Stella Vaughan Williams née Pressey. At the age of six, Vaughan Williams was sent to boarding school in Berkshire and eventually studied at Wellington College in Somerset. He went up to Wadham College, Oxford in 1937 to read Greats (Classics). He also co-edited a poetry magazine and contributed to Augury. An Oxford miscellany of verse and prose (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1940). His ambition at that point was to become an archaeologist.

In 1939 all 20-year-olds were called up to help the war effort, but for students this was postponed to the end of their course. Vaughan Williams’ older brother Richard, a pilot, was killed early in the war. Vaughan Williams was a conscientious objector, but was determined to make a contribution to the struggle against Fascism. At his instigation, he and a group of fellow students from Oxford and Cambridge formed the Universities Ambulance Service. He drove an ambulance during the London Blitz, then joined the British Volunteer Ambulance Service and was posted to serve with the Durham Light Infantry in Northumberland, acting both as a driver and a medical assistant, working with a doctor. This experience changed the course of his life. He thought: ‘if this man can be a doctor, I can!’ He then set about teaching himself chemistry, biology and physics, with the help of local libraries in Northumberland, to obtain the necessary qualifications to enter the medical course at Oxford. He worked as a night porter at the Radcliffe Infirmary to fund himself during the course, which he did through Wadham, which also generously offered him a scholarship. He qualified in 1947. Half way through his pre-clinical course, he became interested in pharmacology and obtained a BSc after one year.

Vaughan Williams continued with his clinical work in Oxford, becoming a houseman at the Churchill Hospital, spending two years at John Hopkins’ University in Baltimore as a Rockefeller travelling fellow and taking a DM degree. In 1955 he was appointed to a fellowship at Hertford.

Vaughan Williams published more than 220 papers and three books, achieving international recognition for his work on arrhythmias, heart rhythm problems which are experienced by more than two million people a year in Britain. It had been thought that death due to coronary thrombosis was caused by pump failure in a heart largely deprived of its blood supply, but improvements in coronary care techniques led to the discovery that 95 per cent of those who survived an initial heart attack experienced arrhythmias within the first 48 hours. It was Vaughan Williams who realised that such arrhythmias were the most common cause of sudden death, and his main contribution was to identify the scientific basis for treating this condition with drugs. He was also one of the first pharmacologists in the world to work with life-saving beta-blockers.

As well as his work on arrhythmias, he carried out research on drugs concerned with intestinal disorders and demonstrated that the cholera bacillus appears in the blood stream and in parts of the body other than the intestine.

His work was recognised internationally with an honorary fellowship of the American College of Clinical Pharmacology and an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne. With the income provided by pharmacology company consultancies, he created the Vaughan Williams Fund, which offers travel awards to Hertford medical students.

A fine draughtsman, Vaughan Williams supported his college by drawing up plans to renovate parts of the college which he described as ‘a complete slum’. In the Old Quadrangle, the only toilets were outside the main buildings. An influenza epidemic saw students, some with a high fever, queuing across the quad to use them. Vaughan Williams introduced toilets indoors on each staircase. When he saw the unhygienic state of the kitchens, he decided that ‘something had to be done’. In addition to all his daily duties and with no thought of payment, he took it upon himself to improve the living space at a time when the college was very short of funds. When Hertford was able to extend the college substantially by creating the Hollywell Quad, Vaughan Williams considered the site and presented his plans to the architect Peter Shepheard (then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects). The final development hardly differs from Vaughan Williams’ original plans.

In 1954, while on holiday in France, he met Marie Londès de Payen de Lagarde. They married in 1956 and had two daughters, Dominique and Armelle, and a son, Roland.

Vaughan Williams had a dry sense of humour and believed in making ‘your own fun’. He was a keen amateur film maker, both of invented scenarios with his children and animated sequences. He played the piano, wrote poetry and kept very fit. After retirement at 67, he enjoyed a weekly round of golf into old age. He was persuaded by ‘younger golfing friends’ to write a book describing his fitness regime. You don’t need a gym (Oxford, Vaughan Williams) was published in 2010. To prove his point, at the age of 97 he was doing 50 press-ups three times a week!

Dominique Vaughan Williams

[McLauchlan, K A. Miles Vaughan Williams at 90 nd; Hertford College Miles Vaughan Williams, 1918-2016 – accessed 10 April 2017; The Oxford Times 22 September 2016 – accessed 10 April 2017; The Telegraph 16 October 2016 – accessed 10 April 2017; The Times 14 November 2016; The Guardian 13 December 2016 – accessed 10 April 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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