Richard Welbourn Dies: Pioneer And Historian Of Endocrine Surgergy

Historians in the News

Richard Welbourn led one of the biggest departments of surgery in the UK and established a reputation internationally for endocrine surgery and postgraduate courses at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School of London University. He was the first President of the British Association of Endocrine Surgery and took a prominent role in the teaching of medical ethics, co- editing and writing two editions of The Dictionary of Medical Ethics (in 1977 and 1980). On his retirement, in 1983, 25 professors of surgery worldwide (12 in the British Isles), many of them endocrine surgeons, were former members of staff of the RPMS.
Welbourn was invited to lecture widely and did so in five continents. He founded British and international societies of endocrine surgery, he was President of the Surgical Research Society and held office in many professional associations and served on the editorial board of several journals.

At Queen's, in the 1950s, he had tried to start discussions in the medical school about death and dying, but the subjects were taboo. By 1963, Professor Charles Fletcher's television programme Your Life in Their Hands was provoking enormous interest, while Cicely Saunders's work with her hospice movement was proceeding apace. At this time, the Rev Ted Shotter, of the Student Christian Movement (now Dean Emeritus of Rochester Cathedral), started the London Medical Group to discuss such problems.

Dick Welbourn became one of the first members, later writing and editing, with Professors Archie Duncan (physician) and Gordon Dunstan (moral theologian), The Dictionary of Medical Ethics (1977). He lectured widely on ethical subjects and arranged meetings on eagerly debated subjects such as life before birth and euthanasia. The London Medical Group evolved into the Institute of Medical Ethics and Welbourn became first Chairman of the Council and later continued as Vice-President.

His relationship with UCLA did not end with retirement. In 1983, as Visiting Scholar, he started writing The History of Endocrine Surgery, enjoying writing it almost as much as he had enjoyed surgery. This scholarly labour of love took seven years of meticulous study of original source material before he felt ready to publish.

Welbourn was very influenced by the writings of the great John Hunter, the founder of scientific surgery, who recognised that all operations were inevitably a traumatic assault on the human body. Much later, in retirement, he followed enthusiastically the new laparoscopic techniques resulting in speedy recovery and relative comfort for patients " a huge contrast to the big, painful incisions and thus long stay in hospital needed previously.
Richard Burkewood Welbourn, surgeon: born Rainhill, Lancashire 1 May 1919; Senior Lecturer, then Reader, Queen's University, Belfast 1952-58, Professor of Surgical Science 1958-63; Surgeon, Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast 1953-63, Belfast City Hospital 1962-63; Professor of Surgery, Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London University and Director, Department of Surgery, Hammersmith Hospital 1963-79, Professor of Surgical Endocrinology 1979-83 (Emeritus); Visiting Scholar, Department of Surgery, UCLA 1983- 89; married 1944 Rachel Haighton (one son, four daughters); died Reading 3 August 2005.

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