(1932 – 1995)
Bernard Williams was a neurosurgeon who practiced in Birmingham, UK. He had a career-long interest in the conditions of syringomyelia and Chiari malformations. His meeting with Ann Conroy, who became one of his patients, resulted in the founding of the charity that now bears her name.
Bernard was born and brought up in Stockport, in the north of England. He went to university in Birmingham, qualifying as a doctor in 1955. After military service, he worked in London and went on to begin his neurosurgical career, at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. He then returned to Birmingham, where he completed his neurosurgical training. His first consultant post was back in the north of the country, in the city of Hull. He worked there for three years before returning to Birmingham, where he continued to work until his untimely death in 1995, at the age of 63.
Bernard’s interest in syringomyelia began at an early stage in his career. He was asked by his professor to present a case of syringomyelia at the regular, weekly clinical meeting. He duly went to the medical school library to read-up on this strange disease, which he had not encountered before. He realised that he simply could not understand the condition and therefore set about trying to do so, something which he continued to do throughout his career.
Bernard went on to publish extensively on the subject of syringomyelia. Many of his papers describe the results of his original research but he also composed many articles for post-graduate teaching journals, as well as contributing chapters to several specialist textbooks. His work was not confined to the field of syringomyelia and Chiari and he made important contributions to our understanding of other disorders of cerebrospinal fluid circulation. His work was recognised by the award of the Cassey-Holter memorial prize, in 1977 and the Pudenz prize in 1994 and he received further honours from the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Even today, papers published in the medical literature quote the theories put forward by Bernard Williams. His term “suck and slosh” is frequently mentioned, this being his proposed mechanism to explain how syrinx cavities enlarge. Bernard also frequently used the term “filling mechanism”, again to refer to how syringomyelia cavities form. He is responsible for identifying how high amplitude venous pressure waves, generated by coughing, bending over or physical straining, produce the short-lived but severe headaches that trouble many people who have Chiari malformations.
As a person, Bernard Williams was extraordinarily self-effacing and modest, to a degree that belied his remarkable intelligence. He was an enthusiastic teacher, always encouraging students and young doctors to see the fascination in clinical neurological science and to share his enthusiasm in this field. He had an open-minded approach to whatever subject he considered and was always completely honest in what he said. When operating he paid meticulous attention to detail. When results were not as good as he wanted, he would agonise over the reasons why and always seek to improve himself.
Outside the world of neurosurgery, Bernard Williams had a passion for the game of chess, a talent supported by his extraordinary memory. It was therefore very fitting that his widow chose a chess-piece as the headstone for his grave. Bernard died riding his motorbike, a victim of the impetuous haste of morning rush-hour traffic. There are no lengthy, wordy inscriptions on his grave, just his dates, preceded by what he wrote at the bottom of any letters - “Bernard Williams, Neurosurgeon”.
Bernard Williams left behind him many of his former patients, who remembered him with fondness and gratitude, as well as many neurosurgeons who trained under his direction.