Obituary: William LeFanu

Amongst the select few dedicated to be medical librarians William LeFanu was one of the most quietly distinguished.

Only appearing in Who's Who as the husband of the composer Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, he served for nearly 40 years as librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons, in London (1929-68). His many specialist publications included a bio-bibliography of the vaccination pioneer Edward Jenner (1951), Betsy Sheridan's Journal (1960, reissued 1986), a catalogue of Jonathan Swift's library (1988) and a study of the writings of Nehemiah Grew (1990). He also translated the Latin works of Sir Thomas Browne for Sir Geoffrey Keynes's complete edition.

Billy LeFanu was descended from a Huguenot family who had escaped from Catholic persecution in France to tolerant Dublin. Though always feeling himself Irish, he was one of the first members of his family to work in England. After Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and a brief spell of teaching he became assistant librarian of the Hellenic Society in 1927, and moved to the Royal College of Surgeons two years later. Under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation he undertook in 1937 a survey of London's medical libraries, and proposed co-operative reorganisation.

The surgeons' college with its library was destroyed in the Blitz, but LeFanu had evacuated the books and, in addition to his work as an air raid warden and member of the Home Guard, organised the supply of periodicals to Army and Navy hospitals. While the college was rising from the ashes he threw himself into the development of medical libraries in the United Kingdom and North America. He was chairman of the meeting of the International Congress of Medical Librarians in London in 1953, and vice-president of the meeting in Washington in 1963. He gave valuable assistance to medical libraries at the Royal College of Nursing, the Osler Library at McGill University and the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin, and was an examiner and lecturer at University College London School of Librarians. Never robust, this slim, smiling figure was always at hand with shrewd experienced advice based on a rare knowledge of books, scientific and classical, in English and other European languages.

His quiet satisfaction in his Huguenot ancestry led him to become President of the Huguenot Society (1956-59) and Chairman of its publications committee (1959-79). He was proud of a portrait of one of his ancestors, who as a small child had escaped hidden in an apple barrel. His breadth of interests gave him many admirers. As a member of the Linnaean Society he was a keen naturalist and at his Essex home planted an orchard with an unusual variety of fruit trees.

Sharing Dean Swift's criticism of the treatment of the poor, LeFanu was a radical in his politics, questioning inequalities of wealth in contemporary Britain. In matters of faith he shared the tolerant humanist attitudes contained in Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici. He valued the ministrations of the parish of Eaton, in Norwich, and during our conversations in his last weeks he told me, with a whimsical smile, that his mind was not acute enough to grasp all the doctrines involved in Holy Communion.

He was devoted to his wife Elizabeth Maconchy and her career, delighting in her prolific musical achievements and sharing her admiration for Vaughan Williams, and was always at hand to assist her in every way. She predeceased him by five months, and he was buried beside her, attended by the care and affection of his children and grandchildren.

Alan Webster

William Richard LeFanu, librarian: born Bray, Co Wicklow 9 July 1904; married 1930 Elizabeth Maconchy (died 1994; two daughters); died Norwich 1 April 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing