Remembering Bill Webber

Issue: BCMJ, Vol. 48, No. 3, April 2006, page(s) 134-135 Obituaries
Peter Grantham, MD

Dr Gavin Stuart’s in memoriam of Dr Webber was printed in the March issue of the BCMJ. We felt that Dr Webber’s stature and the affection with which he was held by the medical community justified this second tribute. Dr Grantham is professor emeritus and first head of the UBC Department of Family Practice. —ED

When a particularly remarkable colleague and friend dies, we sometimes need to pause and try to ascertain the reasons why this particular loss seems so unusually painful.

Although Bill Webber was born in Newfoundland, he didn’t even talk funny. If we believe in stereotypes, it may, however, explain his often droll way of expressing himself and his delightful appreciation of humor in others and in his life in general. Actually, Bill always spoke thoughtfully and with precision, one of his hallmarks even as a young man; a reflection of his organized mind.

In the late 1940s at West Point Grey’s Lord Byng High School, only a few blocks from where he lived and worked all his life, Bill was known as a “brain” in the adolescent argot of the day, even to those in grade 12 (like me) when he was in grade 10. His cute girlfriend then was Marilyn Robson; she became his lifelong partner, support, and helpmate. Though Bill and Marilyn were both outstanding at remembering people’s names (like spouses of faculty members) Marilyn was probably the better. She is now his widow, loving mother of their three successful kids, and grandma to their seven grandchildren.

As an undergraduate at UBC, Bill became a “first class” pre-med student, universally recognized by us all as one who would have no difficulty getting into the just-established (in 1950) medical school—which he of course did, no problem.

For those in UBC Med ’58 he was top of the class each year and popular gold medal winner at graduation. Bill’s development as a teacher showed early; in a recent BCMA video (Medical Frontiers—100 Years of Innovation), a segment documenting our school’s early days contains a photograph of half a dozen (oh-so-young) medical students in their short white coats apparently seriously contemplating a pathology specimen. If Kodak can capture body language, in this picture Bill Webber is already clearly teaching his classmates the finer points of the structures under scrutiny.

Bill Webber did a junior rotating internship at VGH, two post-graduate years at Cornell researching the functions of the distal renal tubule of the rat, and then commenced his outstanding ascent up UBC’s academic ladder: faculty association president, Department of Anatomy professor, Faculty of Medicine dean, associate vice-president academic, and member of the Senate and Board of Governors. His list of accomplishments is long and has been detailed elsewhere; a university CV format does not easily give us the true measure of this remarkable man.

So here was a doctor (which means teacher in Latin) who never practised clinically, yet somewhat paradoxically became revered and is now dearly missed by two entire generations of practising physicians in BC. How so? Three reasons.

First, Bill Webber was a man who gave: of his time, his knowledge, his expertise, his caring, and of himself. He gave support, provided guidance and encouragement, and remained perpetually accessible, even in his various roles as the boss. Evidence includes being UBC’s longest-serving medical dean, an honorary degree from his home institution, and many other prestigious awards.

Second, Bill Webber evolved into the consummate teacher. Whatever it is that great teachers possess, he typified it. He was patient, enthusiastic, interested, inspiring, knowledgeable, and had high expectations—all these things—and was always highly evaluated by students, trainees, and colleagues for these characteristics. Hence, the William Webber Medical Education Lectureship, the Killam Teaching Prize. His real love of teaching was not limited by our university’s regressive mandatory retirement policy—he continued teaching and mentoring until he died.

Third, Bill Webber was a bridge-builder, a mediator, an arbiter. His style was consistently non-confrontational. He was highly successful in national organizations and was particularly effective locally as dean in establishing positive working relationships between the academic and practice-oriented medical communities here in BC. Witness his recognition by the VMA as their Osler Orator and Prince of Good Fellows, the Alumni Association’s Wallace Wilson Leadership Award, and senior membership in the CMA. He did much to create, nurture and maintain the positive town-gown situation from which all of us benefit here.

In early January, Bill Brown, the kindly (self-appointed) President for Life of our UBC medical class of ’58 phoned: “The Dean has had a stroke.” There have been several deans now, but we knew who he meant. Three weeks later, Bill Webber died, age only 71. We’ve lost a really great person here. For Dean Emeritus William Alexander Webber, MD, FRCPC, LLD, there’ll be no more classroom (or small group sessions considering the “new” curriculum), no more mentor group visits, no more committees, councils, consultancies, or commissions, no more meetings, no more community soccer or lawn bowling, no more family time at Gambier Island.

I am only one of the many, many people sharing in the profound sadness of this loss.

—Peter Grantham, MD
West Vancouver