Lives of the fellows

David Gwyn Seymour

b. 27 May 1949 d.17 December 2016
BSc Birm(1970) MB ChB(1973) MRCP(1975) MD(1988) FRCP(1994) FRCP Edin(1995)

Gwyn Seymour was the first professor of medicine for the elderly at the University of Aberdeen. ‘The child is the father of the man’: few people demonstrate the truth of Wordsworth’s assertion more than Gwyn. The person he became was shaped by his family and the south Wales mining community in which he grew up. He was born in the pit village of Ynysybwl in Mid Glamorgan. His father, Arthur Haydn Seymour, was a colliery carpenter and his mother, Mair, a shop assistant in the local Co-op. They were an intelligent, creative and talented pair who were grammar school educated but had stayed in their beloved mining village. They were determined, however, that their only son would benefit from the greater opportunities for higher education after the Second World War.

As Gwyn’s parents both worked, his grandparents, who lived in the same house, played a big part in his early life. He was comfortable in the company of older people, came to value their contribution to society and was fascinated by the stories they had to tell. His grandparents were undoubtedly a key influence on his future choice of medical specialty and the book he later wrote was dedicated to them. A family friend was political agent to Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service, and he gave Gwyn Bevan’s reading list, which the young teenager read and which led to his lifelong activism in the Labour Party. He was still knocking on doors and passionately arguing causes a few months before his death. From early childhood he also developed a passion for classical music and learned to play the piano and cello. Throughout his life Gwyn kept both his south Wales accent and a pride in his background.

Gwyn was educated at Pontypridd Boys’ Grammar School and went on to study medicine at Birmingham University. He took an intercalated degree in 1970, spending a year in the anatomy department studying the behaviour of hamsters. Also in 1970 he met Ruth, a BSc student in the anatomy department. They married in 1972. He graduated MB ChB in 1973. As an undergraduate he had a further nudge in the direction of medicine of old age as a career from Ronald Cape, a Birmingham consultant who was one of Britain’s pioneer geriatricians.

Gwyn held house officer posts in the Birmingham hospitals and in Bradford, and soon gained his MRCP, in 1975. So successful was he that he was asked to produce a very funny video as a training aid for doctors undertaking the membership examination. In 1976 he joined Ronald Cape, who had by then moved to Canada, and entered the residency training program of the University of Western Ontario. This offered the opportunity to spend some time providing medical care to the Cree and Inuit people in the far north of the country. Gwyn enjoyed meeting older members of these unique communities, and liberally ordered Zimmer frames to help their mobility.

He returned to the United Kingdom in 1977 as a senior registrar in geriatric medicine in Dundee. In 1982, he became senior lecturer in geriatric medicine at the University of Wales College of Medicine. He was awarded an MD by the University of Birmingham in 1988 for a thesis on risk prediction in elderly surgical patients. He published this pioneering work as a single author textbook, which filled an important gap in medical knowledge and was favourably received on both sides of the Atlantic (Medical assessment of the elderly surgical patient London, Croom Helm, 1986).

In 1994 Gwyn was appointed to the newly established chair of medicine for the elderly, University of Aberdeen, and as an honorary consultant geriatrician to Grampian Health Board. The same year he was elected as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and the next year as a fellow of the Edinburgh College.

While in Aberdeen he continued his interest in surgery and anaesthesia in old age. He was very proud to become the first non-anaesthetist to chair the Age Anaesthesia Association (from 2005 to 2008). He also published many academic papers and textbook chapters on a wide range of other topics related to health in old age. These included metabolic bone disease, medical decision making techniques, the measurement of quality of life, factors affecting discharge from hospital, cognitive dysfunction and its relation to physical illness, the (often inappropriate) use of drugs in older people, telemedicine, hip fractures and ageist attitudes of medical students and doctors. He was heavily involved in the development of the medical curriculum of the University of Aberdeen and ran the university’s undergraduate course on medical ethics.

His innate diffidence meant Gwyn was not initially a natural speaker, but he blossomed rapidly and became a very witty, inspiring and memorable teacher. He was a popular speaker at scientific meetings, particularly those organised by the British Geriatrics Society. For all of these contributions he was awarded the Society’s president’s medal in 2008.

Gwyn was not an ivory tower professor. He never let his many university commitments impact on his clinical contribution to the NHS department of medicine for the elderly in Aberdeen. He was a gifted clinician who was particularly good at picking up things others had missed. Most importantly, he was admired and respected by the multidisciplinary team, which is vital to the effective practice of geriatric medicine. He was passionate about the specialty of geriatric medicine and uncompromising about its future. He felt it essential that geriatricians have a duty to champion an understanding of the needs and medical rights of older people.

Gwyn’s love of classical music flourished in Aberdeen and he became, after tuition from a professor of cello in London, a very capable cellist who played in a number of local trios, quartets and orchestras. However, his greatest musical talent was arranging music for the cello, which he pursued with enthusiasm after his retirement and established an international reputation.

Another achievement which shows the breadth and depth of his erudition was being a regular question setter for the BBCs long running radio programme ‘Round Britain quiz’, arguably the most challenging quiz ever broadcast.

Gwyn Seymour died after a year’s treatment for metastatic small cell prostate cancer knowing all the time the inevitable outcome. None of his many medical achievements exceeded the love he had for his family and the pride he had in their achievements. He was survived by his mother, wife and two children, Tirion and Ieuan, both of whom earned their PhDs in the last months of his life.

C J Scott

[British Geriatrics Society In Memoriam: Professor Gwyn Seymour 27 May 2017 – accessed 27 September 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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