Robin G Willison 1925 - 2012

Dr Robin Gow Willison, formerly Senior Lecturer in Neurology and head of the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology at the National Hospital, Queen Square, died on 18th February 2012.

Robin Willison was born in London to Scottish parents and was brought up in a strongly intellectual household – his father was managing editor of the New Statesman and there were frequent visitors from the worlds of politics and literature. Robin would be taken to the publishers Chapman & Hall, and he remembered an ancient porter reminiscing to him about Charles Dickens delivering his manuscripts to the office. In a further link with the past, Robin’s mother when a child had known an old lady who, as a child herself, had been introduced to Admiral Nelson.

After Highgate School where he developed an early and enduring interest in engineering, and had exciting times fire-watching on the school roof during the war, he studied medicine at Trinity College, Oxford and the Middlesex Hospital. Interest in neurology developed during service as a major in the RAMC at Wheatley and Churchill Hospitals in Oxford, especially working with Ritchie Russell and Whitty and using the new artificial ventilators on paralysed patients. After general medicine and more clinical neurology at Stoke Mandeville, he returned to the Middlesex Hospital as an MRC research fellow, working particularly on analysis of peripheral nerve and muscle activity with Roger Gilliatt. In 1962 he moved to the National Hospital and the Institute of Neurology, progressively increasing the Clinical Neurophysiology and reducing the Neurology components of his work over the next decade. In the late 1970’s he gave up his sessions in the University Department of Clinical Neurology, transferring to the hospital Department of Clinical Neurophysiology. On the retirement of Bill Cobb in 1980 he became head of department until his own retirement in 1990.

Willison made numerous important and fundamental contributions to Clinical Neurophysiology and can reasonably be regarded as one of the founding fathers of EMG as we know it. Roger Gilliatt was a crucial collaborator and others included Pamela LeQuesne, Michael Hayward, Diane Smythe, Bob Hjorth and Peter Fitch. He published papers on methodology of nerve conduction measurement, focal nerve lesions, a clear description of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome due to a cervical rib or band, and diabetic neuropathy. With Hjorth he described the EMG features of various forms of spontaneous activity. A major and continuing interest was automated EMG analysis; with his medical physics colleague Peter Fitch and a series of research fellows, he developed and refined techniques for quantitative analysis of EMG in health and disease, concentrating on the interference pattern rather than individual motor units, the favoured approach in continental Europe. There was also pioneering work on EEG telemetry for investigation of epilepsy and sleep analysis. His interest in mathematical modelling led him to apply the 4-colour problem to the distribution of constituent muscle fibres from individual motor units in a muscle. Throughout his career he maintained close ties with numerous research colleagues abroad, most particularly in Denmark.

Willison’s early interest in computers and indeed in anything mechanical, gave him an important role at Queen Square as an approachable link between medicine and technology. He was also a most helpful and conscientious source of advice to young neurologists and neurophysiologists who came to discuss their ideas and research. Though they might be initially intimidated by his disconcerting habit of assuming knowledge of the literature well beyond ordinary mortals, often accompanied by a rather worried expression on his face, his kindness and dry sense of humour would soon become reassuringly apparent. While never an enthusiast for administration or committee work, he never shirked his share and was a strong representative of the neurosciences on the scientific panels of various organisations.

He leaves Gillian, his wife of 58 years, and four children, one of whom is Hugh Willison, professor of neurology at Glasgow University.

Nick Murray