On October 15th my Grandfather passed away after living a full life of 101 years. Below is his obituary from the Times.
Principled physician who, as editor of The Lancet, lent a radical tone to medical journalism
As editor of The Lancet from 1965 to 1976, Ian Douglas-Wilson joined a long series of radical editors which went all the way back to John Wakley who worked with the social reformer, William Cobbett, in the 1820s.
Douglas-Wilson’s predecessor, Sir Theodore Fox, was a pacifist ambulance driver in the First World War, and The Lancet’s current editor, Richard Horton, has not hesitated to speak out against government “reforms” to the NHS and the last government’s war policies.
After taking part in the D-Day landings, Douglas-Wilson found himself treating shellshocked troops. He committed his experiences to paper, and his article on what was to become known as post-traumatic stress disorder was published in the British Medical Journal.
He was one of the first Allied medics to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Later, he would tell his family that he felt guilty because the first British troops to arrive fed the famished prisoners high-calorie rations and many died because they were unused to food. He kept photos from Belsen in the bottom drawer of his desk. His study doubled as his childrens’ nursery, and they used to open his desk and look in horror at the skeletal bodies of inmates.
After the war he was interviewed for a job at the BMJ, but was advised by its then editor, Hugh Clegg (Nick Clegg’s grandfather), that he was too radical for their publication and that he should apply for a job at The Lancet. He stayed there for 30 years, the last 11 as editor.
Douglas-Wilson was a modest man. When interviewed on BBC, he would insist they didn’t mention his name but refer to him as “Lancet editor”. This modesty didn’t restrict his outspokenness. When Lord Moran, president of the Royal College of Physicians and physician to Winston Churchill, published the former Prime Minister’s personal health details, he felt the lash of Douglas-Wilson’s tongue.
He was a vociferous opponent of routine peer review, believing that it cowed original research. Under his editorship, potential contributors received a quick response which gave them time to search out alternative publications if articles were refused.
Douglas-Wilson was an early advocate of receiving osteopathy into the medical “family” and after his retirement was delighted when acupuncture was accepted into the NHS.
In 1964 Douglas-Wilson travelled across Africa and came back to write Health Prospects in Africa. This was one of the first post-colonial observations into illness and health care provision on that continent.
His radical approach to medical journalism was reflected in his personal life. Returning from Germany in 1945, he and his wife Betty invited German PoWs to spend Christmas with them and their children. The Douglas-Wilsons sent money to refugees and, in 1956, offered a home to two students who had fled from Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution.
There were always interesting people visiting the Douglas-Wilson home in Bromley, Kent. His Danish friend, Karl Hendrick Koster, arrived each Christmas, looking a bit like Santa with his two-metre frame and Viking beard. This was the man who had helped Jews escape to Sweden and who, after his death, was the subject of the Disney film, Miracle at Midnight.
Douglas-Wilson’s closest friend was Thomas Dormandy, a chemical pathologist and leader writer for The Lancet. Dormandy (obituary, May 15, 2013) covered a range of topics from medical ethics to Chekhov and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Dormandy was himself a painter and author. Until his death he would regularly turn up at Douglas-Wilson’s care home to read him instalments of his latest book.
Douglas-Wilson’s wife Betty died on Millennium Eve, aged 91, and he spent the next 13 years on his own until he had to enter a care home. His sense of humour lasted to the end. In the final months of his life, he suffered from dementia and his son remembers a ramble on one visit which involved setting sail across the North Sea. Douglas-Wilson concluded with, “I don’t know what I am talking about, nor do you.”
As an editor, he was a stickler for proper use of language. Here he followed George Orwell, all of whose works were on his book shelf. “Good writing is like a window pane,” wrote Orwell, and Douglas-Wilson followed his advice. He treasured examples of deficient punctuation, such as “Let’s eat granny”, or unintended ambiguity such as the Daily Express headline at the time of the El Alamein campaign in 1942: “British Push Bottles Up Germans”.
Orwell wasn’t on his shelves just for the clarity of his prose. Douglas-Wilson liked him for his no-nonsense honesty. “Do remember,” wrote Orwell, “that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for.”
Douglas-Wilson lived by these words, honest to his family and friends and never afraid to stand up for the sick, the displaced and difficult causes. He was an early supporter of CND and took his teenage son on one of the first Aldermaston marches.
Unloved by a cold mother, Douglas-Wilson had difficulty releasing his emotions. At home, he spent all his time at his desk, poring over next week’s editorial and covering the floor with rolls of copy text, children banished to their bedrooms or the garden.
He retired early to nurse his sick wife and his capacity to love and be loved increased. With a growing family, he ended his long life giving and receiving empathy and compassion.
When his son cleared his desk after his death, the Belsen photos were no longer there. Nor was the family tree that a cousin had meticulously prepared — suggesting that Douglas-Wilson wanted to walk through life unencumbered with his own history
He leaves two daughters and a son.
Dr Ian Douglas-Wilson, physician and editor of The Lancet, 1964-76, was born on May 12, 1912. He died on October 15, 2013, aged 101