The sad news of the death of Bill Fraser is perhaps a moment for all of us to step back and reflect on the considerable changes that we have seen in the field of intellectual disabilities over the last 50 years.
From a remarkably early stage in his career, Bill recognized the role that psychiatry could play in improving the lives of people with learning disabilities and committed himself to being part of the changes that were so necessary at that time.
For the three of us and for many others, Bill was a mentor providing guidance and encouragement in earlier decades when the obstacles faced in-depth clinical studies and scientific research focusing on this group of children and adults seemed at times overwhelming.
Bill’s own particular interest was in language and communication skills but he knew that a better understanding of the causes of learning disabilities and of the wide variation in developmental outcomes both needed and merited the collaboration of a broad range of interlinking disciplines: from education and health, through psychiatry and psychology, to what were then the relatively new fields of genetics and the neurosciences.
Bill was a proud Scotsman and a life-long egalitarian. He graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1963 and went on to obtain an MD, an academic career path rare in psychiatry at that time.
Following a precious appointment to a consultant post in his early thirties, he took up a physician superintendent post at Gogarburn, a residential hospital on the edge of Edinburgh, while also holding a Senior Lecturer post in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh.
In 1988 he left Scotland, with some hesitation, taking up a Chair in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wales College of Medicine, working closely with the new Head of Department, Professor Peter McGuffin and later with Professor Mike Owen.
His unstinting contribution to improving clinical support for those with learning disabilities was recognized by the naming of a new building at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital after him, the William Fraser Centre. He was alleged to have commented at the time, “You can’t! I’m not dead yet!”
Bill, together with David Felce, established the Welsh Center for Learning Disabilities at the University of Cardiff. He became Editor of what was then called the Journal of Mental Deficiency Research, later to become the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, a post he held for around 20 years.
Under his stewardship, the journal greatly increased its international profile and is now one of the highest-impact interdisciplinary journals in our field.
Bill was also closely involved in the establishment of the charity Mencap and was a key trustee of many other charities, including the Baily Thomas Charitable Fund.
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These many contributions to the field of learning disabilities were nationally recognized with the award of a CBE in the Queen’s 1998 New Year’s Honors list and by election to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2001.
His citation for election described him as “the leading academic psychiatrist in the field of learning disability in the UK” and highlighted “his outstanding mentorship in attracting many high caliber young doctors and researchers into this important but ‘Cinderella’ discipline”.
For each of us we have our memories: a quietly spoken man with a wonderfully dry sense of humor, a generous mentor who made an immeasurable contribution to our early careers, a tireless editor, an inspiring teacher and an open-minded and empathetic clinician.
Bill was a force for good at a time when psychiatry needed to find its place in this field, someone committed to doing his best for others, no matter what.
He was always approachable and helpful and above all always kind. Thank you, Bill, for everything you gave. We and many, many others benefited enormously from knowing you.
Bill died in Edinburgh on 15 February 2022 aged 82, finally back at home in Scotland and until almost the end fully enjoying every moment of retirement with his family: Joyce, his much-loved wife of 57 years; their two sons and their wives, Ewen and Jenny, and Alan and Yvette; and his adored and talented grandchildren, Ruairidh, Catriona, Edan and Fenn.
Bill’s family learned a great deal from him, not least his complete lack of bigotry or prejudice.
Bill was a devoted husband, father and grandfather and proud of each and every one of his family. They too can all be very proud of what they have achieved during a lifetime of service to others.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.