Bernard Williams FRCS, Consultant Neurosurgeon (1932 -1995)

This is the second in a series of occasional articles in which readers are invited to submit short historical notes about people or places associated with the Charity. The first article, which appeared in the last issue of the Newsletter, dealt appropriately with Ann Conroy. The next most important person in terms of the history of the Trust is Bernard Williams who is the subject of this article. As with Ann Conroy, if anyone has recollections about Bernard that they would like to share with the readership, please feel free to write to us.

I first met Bernard Williams when I was a medical student. He was carrying out an investigation known as a ventriculogram, on a young lad who was losing his sight. This was just before the era of CT scanning and well before MR imaging became available. Investigation of neurological disorders in those days usually involved what we call "invasive techniques", which were both uncomfortable for the individual concerned and not without risk. Some of our readers may well remember these times and might wish to comment. This era ended over a quarter of a century ago and we have, of course, come on a long way since then. We can only guess what the next twenty-five years will bring by way of advances in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disease. It would be nice to think that the Ann Conroy Trust could play some part in this process.

Whatever, I still remember that day, thirty years ago. Bernard asked me a few questions about the "case" before him. I had been reading my neurology text book so I was able to answer correctly. Bernard seemed impressed and began to teach me more. From that day on Bernard continued to teach me and to help and support me in many ways, even though I was not always as clever in what I said and did. It was clear to me, even then, that Bernard had a passion for his work and was keen to encourage others to develop a similar enthusiasm.

Here, then, we see two of Bernard's principal characteristics - his enthusiasm for medicine in general and neurosurgery in particular and his willingness to teach. He was also blessed with a great intelligence and an extraordinary memory. Combined with an open minded approach to all matters and complete honesty about everything he did, these attributes were the basis of Bernard's successes. He also displayed great compassion and was the first consultant that I met, as a medical student, who seemed to be a caring human being. He was not arrogant or pompous and he did not talk down to others or belittle students. He would often poke fun, in a good natured way, at colleagues and patients alike. He could also be "a bit of a knave" at times but he would always get away with his mischievous behaviour when, perhaps, others would not. This was because of his very likable personality and the fact that everybody could see that Bernard had no malice within him. As an operating surgeon, Bernard paid meticulous attention to detail. He had his share of bad luck, undeservedly I always felt and nobody felt the pain more than Bernard himself when things went wrong. Despite such occasional setbacks, Bernard helped many people to a better quality of life and, once again, I think there will be many readers who will be able to confirm this.

Although Bernard never held an academic post he carried out a great deal of research, much of it original and ground-breaking. He is still widely quoted in specialist medical literature. He produced a large number of publications, dealing not just with syringomyelia and related disorders but with other neurosurgical conditions as well. His name, however, is inexorably linked with syringomyelia and he had an international reputation in this field. A measure of his standing is that, shortly after his death, I was approached by no lesser a body than the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, who asked me to write a testimonial to Bernard. Shortly afterwards the association published a monograph entitled "Syringomyelia and the Chiari malformations", with this testimonial as the introduction, dedicating the volume to the memory of Bernard Williams. Other authors have also dedicated publications to Bernard, notably his friend and colleague Wagih El Masry who, together with Bernard, built up considerable experience and expertise in the management of that most difficult of conditions, post traumatic syringomyelia.

Bernard remained young at heart all of his life. Some people are surprised when I tell them that he was still riding a powerful motorbike in his early sixties. Sadly, this is how his life ended. As I said in my testimonial for the AANS, Bernard fell victim to "the impetuous haste of morning rush hour traffic". He never regained consciousness and it is probably as well that he did not. It would have been tragic to see Bernard transformed from the imposing figure that he was, with his sharp intellect and tremendous enthusiasm for life, into a mentally disabled and physically crippled victim of a severe head injury. Instead we remember him as the highly talented human being that he was, dedicated to his patients and their welfare. A measure of his generosity is the glowing tribute that he offered to Ann Conroy, reproduced in the first article in these series. Bernard himself is deserving of no lesser a tribute. He was, after all, the person who inspired Ann to begin the project that we have inherited. Although there are an increasing number of people now who never knew Bernard, those of us who were privileged to work with him have vivid and fond recollections and remember him with admiration.

Graham Flint FRCS