Obituary: Professor Peter Williams

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The Independent Online
Peter Llewellyn Williams, anatomist: born Caerleon, Monmouth 11 November 1926; Research Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader in Anatomy, Guy's Hospital, London 1954- 70; Professor of Anatomy, London University 1970-80 (Emeritus); Joint Editor, Gray's Anatomy, 35th Edition, Senior Editor 36th and 37th Editions, Chairman of the Editorial Board, 38th Edition; FRCS (Eng) 1994; married Irene Holland (one son, one daughter); died Sidcup, Kent 4 October 1994.

FOR THE PAST four decades Peter Williams was intimately involved with the editing and production of Gray's Anatomy, for which he was known and respected throughout the world. When Henry Gray and his colleague Dr Vandyke Carter produced the first edition of Anatomy: descriptive and surgical in 1858 they little realised that it would still be the ultimate reference book on anatomy in the years approaching the 21st century. This was in no small way thanks to Williams's vision and editorial leadership.

The son of a renowned Welsh orator, Williams was born at Caerleon, in Monmouth (Gwent), in 1926, and had a medical connection through his mother who was a district nurse and midwife. In 1944 he went up to St Catherine's College, Cambridge, to read medicine. The love affair with Gray's Anatomy started when Williams's tutor, DV Davies, mentioned the book in a tutorial. Williams sent a postcard home to his parents, and a 28th Edition was purchased from the daughter of the local butcher who had used it in her training as a PE instructor. Williams read his new acquisition avidly and became known along with Davies as the 'only persons to know every word in Gray'. Many distinctions came Williams's way. He won First Class Honours in Anatomy, the St Catherine's College Scholarship in Anatomy and the Marmaduke Shield Cambridge University Scholarship in Anatomy.

In 1947 Williams became a clinical student at Guy's Hospital Medical School, in London, where he remained, apart from the necessary sojourn in the Royal Army Medical Corps, until his retirement. His excellent academic record continued with the award of the Treasurer's Gold Medal and house appointments at Guy's Hospital. Returning to the Anatomy Department at Guy's in 1954, he began a distinguished career as a teacher of and researcher in anatomy. Many generations of students bear testimony to his enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable lectures and tutorials. He was one of the first to use overhead transparencies in teaching in the late 1950s with multiple overlays to build up complicated diagrams. His research on the neuron including the myelin sheath was acknowledged by the award of a Doctorate of Science and a Professorship in Anatomy by London University in 1970. Williams took early retirement in 1980 in order to devote himself to Gray's Anatomy, supported by his wife, Irene Holland.

His first official appointment to Gray's was in 1954 when he was made indexer for the centenary (32nd) edition, published in 1958. By this time, DV Davies was at St Thomas's Hospital, in London, and became editor of the 33rd and 34th Editions. Professor Davies retained the services of his old student, making him expert adviser for the 34th Edition, but suggestions by Williams for modernisation of Gray's were gently resisted. Davies's unfortunate and premature death in 1968 led to the appointment of Williams and Roger Warwick as joint editors of the 35th Edition, coinciding with the advent of new publishers and printers. It was the opportunity for radical changes to bring Gray's into the 20th century, presenting anatomy as a dynamic and functional discipline. Over the next three editions, the text was increased by 50 per cent and more than 600 new illustrative figures, many from originals drawn by Williams, were added.

Thus the 'new Gray' was born, presenting anatomy as a leading natural science backed up where possible with numerate and experimental data adequately referenced. In 1989, Williams was appointed chairman of an editorial board to mastermind an even more comprehensive presentation of anatomy involving a host of specialist contributors culminating in the 38th Edition. His untimely death has deprived the team of its inspiration and although the new edition will still have Williams's imprint on it, those producing future editions will find it difficult to replace him.