Skip to main content

Sir David Innes Williams

1919 - 2013

Obituary by Chris Woodhouse, Emeritus Professor in Adolescent Urology

Sir David Innes Williams (generally known as "DI") had two careers of equal distinction and near equal length - initially as a surgeon and then as an academic administrator, although he was, first and foremost, a surgeon.

David Innes WilliamsDavid was born on 12 June 1919 in London into a distinguished medical family. His father, Gwynne Evan Owen Williams, was a surgeon at University College Hospital, London. His mother, Cecily Mary Williams née Innes, was a nurse at the same hospital, while his brother, Sir Robert E O Williams, was knighted for his work in bacteriology and genetics.

Until recently, it was almost expected that children should follow their father's profession. It is not surprising, therefore, that after Sherborne School in Dorset he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and qualified as doctor at University College Hospital, London in 1942. His tutor was Max Rosenheim (later Lord Rosenheim) and it was he who first encouraged David to consider research as the foundation of good medical practice.

He had taken the shortened course arranged for medical students at the beginning of the war, which provided young doctors to run the major hospitals in the UK, leaving the more experienced surgeons for the military. He was greatly affected by the subsequent death in action of five of the 49 boys in his house at school, including one with whom he had shared a study.

Despite a very heavy clinical workload, he found time to complete his masters degree in surgery, win the Erichsen prize in practical surgery, pass the fellowship exam of the Royal College of Surgeons, and marry Margaret Harding, a theatre sister, with whom he shared his life for 66 years.

A surgical career

In May 1945 he was called up for military service. He was assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps and sent to India as 1st Lieutenant, General Duties. He was discharged in 1948 as a major and with a very wide experience of surgery. It was only then, six years after qualifying, that he was able to devote himself to the field in which he was, in his day, to lead the world.

It was entirely fitting that he should build the specialty of paediatric urology at the Children's Hospital in Great Ormond Street and at the Shaftesbury Hospital on Shaftesbury Avenue. The former was the first hospital in the United Kingdom to be devoted to the care of children, and the latter was named after the great pioneer of children's social care, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. There had been surgeons in the UK and elsewhere who had contributed enormously to the care of urological diseases of children as a part of their work. Innes Williams was amongst a tiny group who made it their life's work. It is hard now to imagine that so major a specialty that can have an annual European conference with 600 delegates had but a handful when Innes Williams started work.

A huge contribution was the classification of children's urological conditions which, at a time before modern imaging methods, was ground breaking. His unique surgical experience led to the writing of four books on the specialty, the first, written when he was 38, a book which is a model of lucidity and entirely based on his own experience ("Urology In Childhood". Berlin, Springer Verlag, 1958).

His constant quest for the scientific basis of children's neonatal and subsequent conditions produced dozens of scientific articles and book chapters, usually co-authored with inspired junior colleagues. His MD thesis on the chronically dilated ureter is as relevant today as it was at its acceptance in 1951.

He was a superb technical surgeon. He made even the most complicated procedures look easy, so that he was admired by fellow surgeons and trainees alike.

His formal lecturing and, particularly, his surgical teaching were legendary. Such was his prominence in the field that an appointment as his registrar was virtually essential for aspiring paediatric urologists from the UK, Commonwealth and North America. This, in turn, led to many visiting professorships and invitations to speak overseas. He was awarded honorary fellowships of prestigious medical colleges, including the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the American College of Surgeons.

Many doctors make major contributions to their field but are then superseded by later specialists and later research. Such was Innes William's contribution that it still forms the basis of the study of the natural history of congenital genito-urinary anomalies and their surgical correction. His early retirement from surgical practice in 1978 means that very few of those that he taught are still working, but they have instilled the Innes Williams' lessons into the present generation of paediatric urologists.

Amongst his many medical honours were the Leverhulme research scholarship and subsequently a Hunterian professorship of the Royal College of Surgeons, and the St Peter's Medal of the British Association of Urological Surgeons. He was awarded the Denis Browne medal of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons in 1977 and the urology medal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1986.

A career in administration

It was in 1978 that he made a radical change in his career. To the surprise of many, he retired from surgery. He was appointed director of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation, which at the time brought together as a school of the University of London the 12 postgraduate Institutes attached to the London specialist hospitals, including the Institute of Urology and the Institute of Child Heath, with which he was already familiar. However, in a subsequent reorganisation of the University, the Institutes were attached to the general medical schools and the Federation became redundant. In 1985 Innes Williams was appointed as a pro-vice chancellor of the University of London.

In 1982 he was appointed chairman of council of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), a voluntary position in which he worked closely with (later Sir) Walter Bodmer, the ICRF's director of research, and Alastair Dennis, its secretary. It was an important period for the ICRF. During his nine years as chairman, the Fund's income grew from around £15m annually to some £50m. Innes Williams was strongly supportive of the need for the ICRF to maintain excellence in its scientific appointments and scientific research. He was involved in the bold decision to reduce substantially the Fund's financial reserves, releasing the resources required to fund a dramatic increase in its research programmes. He contributed significantly to the development of the Fund's clinical activities, particularly in relation to the surgical profession and the promotion of research fellowships for practising surgeons. He played a key role in the decision to change the Fund's management structure, placing a scientist firmly in control, a contribution that still has profound implications for today's Cancer Research UK.

During these later years, he played a significant role in the highest ranks of the medical profession. He served on the council of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1974 to 1986 and was vice president from 1983 to 1985. He was on the General Medical Council from 1979 to 1989 and was president of the BMA from 1988 to 1989. In all of these roles he brought his usual dignity, fluency and insight into the problems of a profession that often sees itself as besieged.

In 1975 he had been appointed to the Home Secretary's Advisory Committee on the Administration of the Cruelty to Animals Act. When this work ended in 1979, he joined the council of the Royal Veterinary College, serving until 1986.

He was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 1985.

DI's family life was a happy one. He and his wife Margaret welcomed to their home surgical colleagues and their partners and visitors from near and far with great polish.

Part of his legacy was the founding in 1963 of the Society of Paediatric Urological Surgeons, an international paediatric urology "think tank" with a tightly limited membership. The numbers were kept small, initially no more than could sit around his handsome dining table, in a belief that this allowed freer discussion. Everyone attending had to present a paper and all made a comment on each paper. Innes Williams was to have been a guest of honour at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Society at the Royal College of Surgeons in August 2013.

DI's much loved wife, Margaret, died in 2011. In his last two years, with declining health, he received devoted care from Joyce Fay, an old friend and retired nursing sister. He died on 3 May 2013, aged 93, and was survived by his two sons, Martin and Michael.

Innes Williams was given every honour in his chosen field and it was a remarkable achievement to be for so long the world leader of a specialty, which he had created. But above all this, way above and beyond all these distinctions, he had the deep affection and admiration of all who were fortunate to get to know him.

Reproduced by kind permission of the President and Council of The Royal College of Surgeons of England from Plarr's Lives of the Fellows Online

Sources: Sir David Innes William's personal archives, Martin Williams, David Frank, Philip Ransley, Robert Whitaker, David Bloom, Joyce Fay and personal memories of the author

← Back to Memorial Garden