Lives of the fellows

William Tregonwell Collier

b.12 October 1889 d.22 November 1932
MC(1918) BA Oxon(1912) BM Oxon(1919) MA Oxon(1923) DM Oxon(1923) MRCS LRCP(1914) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1932)

William Tregonwell Collier was born in Oxford, his father being Dr William Collier, M.D., F.R.C.P., and his mother Anna G. Legge, daughter of James Legge, D.D., professor of Chinese in the University of Oxford.

He was educated at ‘Lynams’ (Dragon School), Rugby, and Balliol College, where he took his B.A. in the honour school of physiology. From Oxford he went to University College Hospital where he obtained a gold medal. In 1915 he joined the R.A.M.C, and with it he served in the Imperial Camel Corps, was wounded, and awarded the Military Cross. After the war he returned to Oxford and in 1921 became an assistant physician and assistant pathologist at the Radcliffe Infirmary; in 1931 he was elected a full physician.

In 1926 he married Dora Butterworth, daughter of a solicitor in Swindon, who was herself a student at Lady Margaret Hall and took her Oxford M.A., and had two sons.

While working at the Hospital as a physician he was also assistant pathologist to Dr A. G. Gibson, F.R.C.P., with whom he published Methods of Clinical Diagnosis in 1927. While in the full flower of his professional career he died suddenly after a short illness at the early age of forty-three.

The foregoing, as set out, gives only the very bare bones of the story of this very English Englishman. To say of a man that he was essentially sound, or even that he was a good man who filled the pattern of his age and profession, is prone these days to be somewhat suspect and to imply a dull mediocrity. Therefore, although appropriate to any description of Billy Collier, they need considerable expansion. For despite the fact that he was a shining product of his times there was no slavish conformity in his make-up and it was owing to his own individuality (not eccentricity) that he remained always primus inter pares.

Born as he was of parents whose mental equipment was far more than average, it is not to be wondered at that he too was intellectually gifted. Furthermore his childhood home in the very centre of Oxford and under the shadows of the University Church meant that he grew up and developed without fret in the centre of one of the greatest architectural wonders of all time, before commercialism had come to rot its quiet and beauty.

The country around Oxford was easy of access, and from his childhood his delight in exploring the waterways of the Thames, the Severn and the Wye, began and continued throughout his life. His preparatory school was a sure foundation for a child of his kind. The academic level was then as always very high, for the children like himself were largely the products of highly educated and intelligent people.

Despite the fact that he had a shortening of the right arm as the result of an attack of poliomyelitis in childhood, he was a most happy member of a vital and sparkling group. He played for the School XV as a forward in 1901-02 and also showed himself to be a very fair athlete. But although then and throughout his life he enjoyed playing games such as tennis, squash, hockey and Rugby, it was really in field activities rather than pure sports that his mind and body ranged most happily. He enjoyed swimming, but in particular climbing and mountain walking, and he had a great interest in birds.

His letters written back to his old preparatory school over a number of years reveal a natural talent for clear writing and an enjoyment of simple things. At Rugby he showed a capacity for leadership that remained with him throughout his life, for his judgment was always that of the balanced and intelligent man, and his integrity was instinctively recognised.

At the Radcliffe Infirmary he came under the influence of Sir William Osier, who prompted him to take an interest in pathology, and he served as the clinical demonstrator not only on behalf of Sir William, but also of at least two subsequent regius professors, Garrod and Buzzard.

He had become interested while at Balliol in the Boys’ Club in St. Ebbe’s, Oxford, and this interest he resumed fully when he came back to practise in the city. He was chairman of the Oxford Juvenile Organisations Committee, which was then the one coordinating body for young boys and girls from poor homes within the city.

It is itself an index of the man that, quite apart from the very personal service which he gave to his patients, his sympathy could stretch out still further to those in their early youth who had fewer opportunities than he had had himself, and it is not surprising to learn how many devoted friends he had in the poorer parts of the town.

Those who had the fortune to know him remembered him as a tall, slightly built man, with brilliantly clear blue eyes, who did not talk a great deal, but who was sure to get careful attention when he did speak, or, in his rather clipped diction, offer an opinion. He appeared often to make firm decisions quickly but they were in fact the outcome of ingrained basic knowledge of what was right and ethically sound, and were the products of a carefully acquired precision of thought.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1932, 2, 1040 (p); Lancet, 1932, 2, 1252-3 (p); Times, 23 Nov. 1932.]

(Volume V, page 77)

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