Frederick Wilson

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 14 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e393
  1. David Wilson

The fourth child of John Alsop Wilson and Margaret Emily Wilson (née Tooley) Frederick Wilson (“Fred”) was born in Houghton-Le-Spring, County Durham, on 9 September 1918, in the last months of the first world war. His father was a shop owner who started selling haberdashery and hardware on a Durham market stall.

After matriculating at the age of 16 Fred worked for the Sanitary Inspector’s Office in Durham. He seemed destined for a career in architecture, but the second world war intervened.

Fred declared himself a conscientious objector to violence and volunteered for ambulance training with the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). He worked as an ambulance man in London during the blitz, based at Mile End Hospital. As the bombing reduced in 1942, he was posted to Ethiopia. He travelled in a convoy from Liverpool through the U-boat infested Atlantic, around the Cape, and then north to Aden. There seemed to be no means of reaching Ethiopia, so with his colleagues, Fred rented an Arab dhow and sailed across the Red Sea. They crossed the Danakil desert, famous as the hottest place in the world, narrowly avoiding ambushes from the Afar tribesmen.

The unit manned the hospital in Addis Ababa that was to become the Princes Tsahai Memorial Hospital in 1951 (its name was changed to the Army Hospital in 1974 after the revolution). Princess Tsahai was the daughter of the Emperor Haile Selassie; she died from complications of childbirth in 1942, having trained as a nurse at Great Ormond St Hospital in London where she and her father were in exile at the start of the war. Fred met Haile Selassie at the hospital in Addis Ababa.

The FAU established a base in Jimma, 300 km south west of Addis Ababa, in November 1942. Fred lived in the town, in a valley that was infested by mosquitos. He was mentioned in the FAU diary for his work in malaria control and gained expertise in how this vector transmitted disease. He and his colleagues used petroleum to break the surface tension of still water, causing the larvae to sink and drown. They provided mosquito nets and used to search rooms and light fittings for insects at night.

Fred established a tropical ulcer clinic in an old police barracks, in the hills adjoining Jimma. Beggars lay in the streets with open sores, and there were so many that there was no room in the hospital. Treatment was with closed dressings, plaster of Paris, and vitamins. The bandages were made on looms acquired from the south on a mission set up by Lieutenant Colonel Clair. In a year, 256 patients were treated and 213 discharged.

Fred was offered medals by both Haile Selassie and British authorities for his work, but the FAU turned down all such offers, following their pacifist principles. However, such was the regard for his work in Ethiopia that at the end of the war Lieutenant Colonel Claire sent him with a sealed letter of recommendation to the War Office in Whitehall. The letter was read silently, and he was told to walk down the Strand and report to the registrar at King’s College London. The second note instructed that he should be enrolled for first MB in medicine.

While at King’s College and King’s College Hospital, he recalled that every lecture was an eye opener as he learnt what the diseases were that he had seen overseas. He said only a week before he died that he might be the last person in Britain to have seen cases of smallpox in the community. Indeed for many years he was the appointed smallpox officer for Nottingham.

While at medical school, in 1949, Fred married Marjorie Bullock, a geography teacher, whom he had known in the northeast of England since childhood.

Fred established himself in partnership as a general practitioner in Selly Oak, Birmingham. He left in 1956 and established a single handed practice in Nottingham. These were the days of 24 hours’ commitment to the job, with no days off. He worked long hours but gained enormous respect from the community, which continues to this day. Fred was a loving person who cared for all around him. He literally would not hurt a fly, preferring to open the window for it to escape. His practice was based on care and support for all. One Christmas he was late for the family lunch because he was helping an elderly widow to bring coal from her cellar and lighting her fire.

He retained an interest in malaria and researched mosquitos in Britain, finding species that could potentially carry the disease. This led to his collaboration in the identification of atypical haemoglobin in those descended from people living in the fen country of East Anglia, which resembled sickle cell trait. This was reported in the Lancet.

In the 1960s Fred was asked to set up a clinic to care for the students at Nottingham Polytechnic; the poly became Trent University some years later.

Fred worked as a local treasury assessor for industrial accidents. He was expert in the monetary value of fingers and thumbs.

Tom Barnsley, a former colleague in the FAU, became managing director of Raleigh Industries, the large bicycle manufacturer in Nottingham, and invited Fred to sit on the board as their medical adviser. He became the doctor and confidante to all the senior members of the board. He was able to show off his suits and cars. Fred’s philosophy, learnt from his father, was always to dress the shop window well even if you are short of money. As a result he had the best suits and the latest car. He could not always afford them, but the practice flourished.

Fred was loved and admired by his patients for his kind, gentle, and caring approach to medicine and life. He was an exponent of the way that medicine used to be before the days of targets and management pressure.

Aged 72 Fred retired from medical practice. He did not want to stop working and became the caretaker of a local primary school, putting out the bins and lighting the boiler; this all in the early hours of the day. He was regarded by the headmistress as the most overqualified caretaker she had met.

In retirement he and Marjorie travelled widely. Both loved to draw and paint, and Fred’s pictures of architecture were remarkable; he had the habit of photocopying the best ones and passing them around, calling them Fred Wilson fakes. Fred kept up to date with science, art, and history. He was fascinated by the large Hadron Collider and knew a great deal about the life and works of Michelangelo. Fred became a gardener and followed his father in the greenhouse with crops of tomatoes and chrysanthemums.

Fred always suffered from a bad chest. As a child he developed bronchiectasis, and chest infections troubled him all his life. In his later years he developed an empyema. He spent his last years in Charnwood Hall Nursing Home in Shepshed, Leicestershire, where he was renowned for his assegai spear and ostrich egg both from Ethiopia.

Fred’s children, David and Elizabeth, both followed him to King’s College London and King’s College Hospital. He is survived by Marjorie, and three more generations of children.

Having faded quietly over several months Fred developed another chest infection and died peacefully at 5.45 am on 7 December 2011. We will miss him desperately, but will remember his full and loving life with joy and pride.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e393


  • Former general practitioner, Nottingham (b 1918; q London; MBBS, MRCR, LCRP), d 7 December 2011.