Brian James Williams FRACS
General Surgeon
30 August 1938 - 23 June 2018 

Brian was born in Paeroa in the Hauraki Plains area of the North Island of New Zealand. As a youngster he enjoyed a semi-rural lifestyle and was acquainted with the challenges and pleasures of the adjacent bush, rivers and coastal areas of the region.

In 1951 Brian began his secondary education at King’s College in Auckland, where he boarded at Selwyn House. He was quickly marked out as a natural leader, eventually becoming Captain of House and leading the rugby first fifteen in an era when King’s was particularly strong in that sport.

On leaving school Brian was uncertain of his career path and briefly tried commerce, combined with life as a stock agent for Wright Stephenson’s, before settling firmly on medicine as a vocation. He gained graduate entry to Otago Medical School and completed his MB ChB in 1966. During his undergraduate years he played rugby for University A and gained New Zealand University Blues in rugby and rowing. In 1964, just before beginning his final year, he married Frances Schluter. The Williams family increased steadily over the subsequent few years. Shaun was born in 1966, twins Sarah and Joanna in 1969 and Rebecca in 1972. These were very busy years for the family with Brian now committed to a career in surgery, training on the Auckland Hospital rotations and having to do long hours on call and his fair share of parenting.

Brian became FRACS in 1973 and, with a family of four, embarked – as was the norm – on an overseas journey to gain further experience, starting in Vancouver with the renowned upper gastrointestinal surgeon Cameron White and then moving to Halifax and thence to England. He had middle grade and senior registrar positions in the London Hospital Whitechapel and in Chelmsford Essex.

He returned to a tutor specialist position at Green Lane Hospital in 1977. This was a demanding role which he managed with flair and good humour and he quickly gained the respect of his senior colleagues. They assisted and supported him into private practice, which he commenced in Grafton Road in Auckland in 1980.

During the next decade there were significant changes in the provision of publicly funded surgery and in 1984 North Shore Hospital was opened.  Brian was appointed as a surgeon at North Shore in 1986 and stayed there until his retirement in 2010.  While his chosen subspecialty interests were colorectal and breast surgery, in the late 1970s he became an early entrant in the field of colonoscopy.  His private practice flourished and he was one of the first to initiate a multidisciplinary breast clinic in 1995 -an enterprise that continues to provide a valuable service.

At North Shore Hospital Brian and I worked together as a team recreating former very enjoyable days as registrars and fulltime surgeons and one thing we never forgot was how hard we had to work then and how it was the same for our registrars. Brian in particular was well known in the trainee ranks as a surgeon with great sympathy for those who shared – as he had done - a full time role as a parent and surgical registrar. He was not a great exponent of self-advocacy, his style being very much to perform to the highest standard and let his deeds speak for themselves.

One of the easiest things in surgery is “How to do it”. Not so easy is “When to do it” and more particularly “When not to do it”. Brian was a past master of this dimension of surgery and for that reason he had a particularly low complication rate. His surgery was always accurate and appropriate. He had a very low threshold to seek assistance, either in theatre or on a difficult preoperative matter, and in return he was the giver of much sound advice to his colleagues when they sought help.

Surgical reputations, however, are not made in the operating theatre. By far the most important element is firstly how patients are treated other than with surgery and secondly how the nursing and allied health staff are respected.  Of all the great characteristics Brian had, this was his strongest. The high regard the nurses had for Brian, and will continue to have, is testimony to that. I recently had occasion to contact a surgeon about a reference for another colleague and she asked after Brian. I told her his circumstance and after expressing her sorrow at the turn of events she said “I learnt more about how to treat patients and staff from Brian Williams than anyone else in all my surgical training.” And by no means was that an isolated comment.

Fran, Brian’s wife, has been an unfailing support for Brian through the whole of his professional life and she and their four children should be comforted by the assurance that Brian’s contributions to surgery and the wider world will remain undiminished.


Obituary kindly provided by P G Alley FRACS