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James Robert Willson
Department of OB/GYN

By Timothy R.B. Johnson, M.D. and John DeLancey, M.D.

J. Robert Willson, one of the century's most influential obstetrician/gynecologists, was born in Flint, Michigan in 1912. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1937. He subsequently served his residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Michigan from 1937 to 1941. Dr. Willson served as Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Temple University from 1947 to 1963 and at the University of Michigan from 1964 to 1978 where he remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1983. He then moved to Albuquerque where he held the title of Adjunct Professor at the University of New Mexico. In addition to serving as President of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dr. Willson also served as President of the Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics (APGO) and the American Gynecological Society. Dr. Willson died at the age of 81 following an auto accident on December 16, 1993 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Dr. Willson made major contributions as a young firebrand chairman at Temple that revitalized the Obstetrics and Gynecology community in Philadelphia. Subsequently, on his return to his alma mater the University of Michigan, he was chairman of a department that provided national leaders for obstetrics and gynecology who influenced the course of the field. He trained, mentored and developed a large number of faculty members including Robert Jaffe, Bill Ledger, Jan Behrman, George Morley, Rick Sweet, Jim Roberts, Bob Hayashi and others who have gone on to successful academic careers. Very much like his predecessor, Dr. Norman F. Miller, Dr. Willson published important papers on the role of obstetricians/gynecologists as primary care providers and was a visionary in defining this important role as the generalist obstetrician/gynecologist.

After his retirement as Chairman, he was actively involved in resident education especially vaginal surgery at the University of Michigan and subsequently the University of New Mexico.

Dr Willson was an important influence on American Obstetrics and Gynecology. His uncompromisingly high standards affected all those who came into contact with him. When evaluating new developments in the field, convenience, popularity, politics all were struck aside by the force of precise critical analysis of whether or not these developments would truly prove beneficial for women. His focus on the truth was unflinching. He had the ability to see what the future would bring when others were confused. He saw the importance of primary care teaching in obstetrics and gynecology long before others recognized its importance and argued that we should have training that would fit the future practice styles of physicians. It is difficult to define what wisdom is, but all who knew Dr Willson, could point to him as an example of what it was like.

Dr. Willson was a visionary but stem leader. As residents, we never saw him smile and riding in an elevator or passing Dr. Willson in a corridor was torture. Rather than responding to questions like "How are your today?" or "It is a nice day" he would stand silently with a penetrating look at the questioner. These were long and painful moments. Many years later, I was at a meeting in New Mexico and was very uncomfortable because I thought that there was something wrong with Dr. Willson. After awhile, I realized it was the first time I ever saw him smile so this was a new side of Dr. Willson that I had never seen before. I discovered that he had a good sense of humor!

Another famous favorite story concerns Dr. Willson's precision with the English language. His textbook Obstetrics and Gynecology was tightly edited and clearly written and he was a stickler [or appropriate language (perhaps his family 's adherence to proper spelling for those who were Will's sons was prescient. He hated the use of the tenn "laparoscope" as a verb and enjoyed the term laparotomy. I will always remember a Grand Rounds presented by Dr. George Morley, a subsequent President of the College, who was talking about the surgical approach to pelvic infections in patients with bilateral tubal ovarian abscesses and extensive pelvic infection was diseased. In response to a question at the end of his talk about definitive treatment of this condition, Dr. Morley said "Well, I think I would have to clean out the patient." From the back of the room, Dr. Willson's voice came forward "And what would you use, George, soap and water?" His point was made.

Dr. Willson's legacies to Obstetrics and Gynecology are a cadre of contemporary leaders who experienced his uncompromising drive for excellence and dedicated focus on clear thinking; a group thankful to have stood on the shoulders of a giant.