Lives of the fellows

William Raphael Hugh Downey

b.18 February 1930 d.5 May 2016
MB BCh BAO NUI(1954) MRCP(1969) DCH(1974) FRCP(1982) OStJ

William ‘Bill’ Downey was a physician and group captain in the Royal Air Force. He was born in Tramore, a small seaside town in County Waterford, Ireland, the son of Kathleen Downey née Gamble and Edmund Alan Downey, a newspaper proprietor.

Bill first attended a small school of just 25 pupils in Tramore. He later said his interest in medicine probably started after his first school outing, to pay respects to a classmate who had died of rheumatic fever. Bill was seven years old and never forgot his classmate Clara. Bill also recalled other children who did not survive childhood, including Theresa Casey, whose heart was damaged by rheumatic fever and died aged ten, and Frances Davis, a playmate, who contracted tuberculous meningitis. When measles struck the school, one child died and eight-year-old Celine Power lost her hearing.

Bill attended Glenstal Priory School from 1941. Despite Ireland’s neutrality, the effects of the Second World War were strongly felt. Apart from travelling to Glenstal by train or bus, fuel wasn’t available for private transport, so cars were rarely seen. Bill later wrote about this time: ‘The Allies told Ireland that if they allowed the Allies convoy ships to refuel in Irish ports…then they would include Irish ships in the protected convoys. The Irish President Éamon de Valera said no. He said it wouldn’t be a ‘neutral’ action. This was a time when Ireland imported 70% of its wheat from Canada, so Ireland had rationing too. In some ways we were worse off, rationing wise, because we had no convoy supplies. Ships that travelled across the Atlantic alone were very vulnerable. It all seemed normal to me though as I was young, so I didn’t miss the petrol or anything else. I remember the shortages, the rough brown bread, but was too young to think much of it all.’

Bill had fond memories of his time at Glenstal. Above all, they were told to avoid waste at all costs and he remembered that it was considered bad form to complain about the food. If anyone broke a plate or cup they were fined sixpence. This didn’t apply to the maids working in the school, so it was not uncommon for the boys to give three pence to the maids to get them to say they did it. He enjoyed maths at school and was good at sport. Bill toyed with the idea of engineering as a career, but he told his family later that the memory of his classmates in Tramore stayed with him and he chose medicine.

Bill studied at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, where he met his wife, Noreen (née Sheehan). After qualifying in 1954, Bill went to work in Reading in Berks County, Pennsylvania, USA. The hospital specialised in infectious diseases, polio in particular, and there were quite a few patients needing negative pressure ventilators. Some recovered, but others spent the rest of their lives in these ‘iron lungs’.

Jobs were hard to come by in Ireland and so Bill, an Irishman who had always loved Britain, and was bitten by the travelling bug, joined the RAF on 6 January 1955. Bill arrived in Lancashire for the six-week RAF induction. Then it was on to RAF Farnborough in Hampshire for an eight-week course on the workings of the RAF. This was followed by his first posting, to RAF Chessington, where Bill spent three years on a rheumatology rehabilitation ward. Having not been brought up with nature programmes on television, the noise of lions roaring from nearby Chessington Zoo, clearly audible from in the doctor’s on call room, was a thrilling, chilling experience! A posting to RAF Cranwell followed and a course in tropical medicine, which Bill found much more to his taste than rheumatology rehabilitation.

Bill flew to Changi in Singapore in August 1961. Bill recalled flying over the Arabian Peninsula, the military plane’s backward-facing seats giving him a good vantage point as the turbulence gave the plane’s fuselage the odd twist. When during the Changi posting Bill flew out to Thailand in a Hastings troop-carrier the turbulence was so bad he had to work during the flight, bandaging the odd serviceman.

Bill was later stationed at RAF Wegberg in Germany, where he passed his MRCP exams in 1969, before gaining a diploma in child health in Birmingham in 1974. The early seventies saw Bill working in paediatrics at St George’s Hospital London and in cardiology at Middlesex Hospital, before returning to an RAF unit, the Central Medical Establishment in London, working again in aviation medicine. A posting to Cyprus followed; Bill and Noreen loved the island and its people.

Bill enjoyed the variety of being a consultant physician in the RAF and chose to keep his title of group captain once he retired. Not content with a quiet retirement, Bill took a secondment with the Army and returned to Germany. He spent three happy years working in cardiology and general medicine in Hanover, before moving to Berlin in 1988. While stationed in Berlin, Bill was one of the doctors looking after Rudolf Hess in Spandau Prison. Each of the occupying forces in West Berlin took it in turns to be Hess’ physician. Bill found him to be a quiet man who talked to him about gardening. Bill was in Berlin during the collapse of East Germany and witnessed the night when East Germans poured through the Brandenburg Gate. He even chipped a bit of the Berlin Wall off himself, along with thousands of others.

Bill loved being a doctor; he had great respect for his patients and his enquiring mind meant that he really enjoyed keeping abreast of modern medical research. Bill’s Catholic faith remained strong throughout his life, giving him purpose and sustaining him. Bill retained his love of travel throughout his life. His true love though, was his family, his beloved wife Noreen, who predeceased him, and his children, William David, Dorothea and Felicity, who remember him as a marvellous father with a fabulous sense of humour. Bill died, surrounded by his children, in Cardiff on a sunny evening in May 2016.

David Downey

(Volume XII, page web)

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