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Peter D. Williamson

Lifetime Achievement Award

Peter Williamson passed away June 4, 2008 after losing his battle with lung cancer. He is survived by his wife Susan, who he always said deserved combat pay, and their four children.

A whole generation of residents, fellows and students was influenced, not only by his published works, but by his clinical observations and his direct personal interactions when he was one-on-one with them and the patient. His influence was unique; not only because of what he taught, but also from how he taught it. Few people are able, as he was, to convey the passion for their craft, in his case the surgical treatment of epilepsy, combined with advocacy and personal consideration for their patients.

It is because of those characteristics that he always paid the closest attention to the details of clinical seizure activity, as well as the neuro-radiological findings and clinical course of the illness. By doing so, he was able to make important research observations, which others had passed by and ignored. His description of the frontal lobe epilepsy syndrome is a landmark in the modern history of epilepsy, and he made no less significant contributions to the study of temporal lobe epilepsy. (Williamson et al. 1985b; French et al. 1993)

He was talented in many fields including art and mechanical engineering. This enabled him to not only repair cars and build airplanes, but also design prototypes for intracranial EEG recording devices. He was one of the pioneers of intracranial EEG, and his substantial work in describing the electrographic onset and spread of focal seizures, laid the groundwork for today’s epilepsy surgery. He was also exceptionally gifted in being able to identify the key points of seizure semiology and other clinical characteristics of epilepsy in relation to the location of the seizure focus. This often led to successful epilepsy surgery in patients despaired of by other neurologists.

He always thought about the knowledge, the patient and the teaching, and not about his own aggrandizement. A review of his most cited papers shows that his research was about careful clinical characterization, and reminds us that randomized controlled trials are not the only way to advance knowledge and improve therapy.  Belonging as he did to the pre-computer era, he disdained metrics such as citation indices and impact factors, but an informal survey shows that his trainees’ highest cited scientific work was written under his mentorship at a festschrift held in his honor in 2007 entitled "Neurophysiology, diagnosis and treatment of intractable epilepsy." It honored his life-time contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy.

Peter Williamson (right) with friends, colleagues and former fellows

He was a man of boundless enthusiasms. His hobbies included re-building antique Bugattis, of which he had the world’s largest private collection, sailing ships, and doing aerobatics over the medical center. Throughout the long years of his career, he never lost the sparkle in his eyes. He engendered fierce loyalty among his trainees, who perpetuate his memory by always citing his work at conferences.  His patients were no less loyal, and by a strange coincidence, two of them won multi-million dollar lotteries while under his care.

After starting his career at Yale, he returned to his alma mater Dartmouth, to which he was devoted. Even after he fell ill he continued to work vigorously in fundraising for Dartmouth Medical School, and made substantial contributions to encourage other donors.

He will be missed by all who knew him.

Vijay Thadani
Barbara Jobst
Jacqueline French
Paul Boon

Peter and Susan Williamson beside his prized Bugatti Atlantique


References:

French, J. A., P. D. Williamson, et al. (1993). "Characteristics of medial temporal lobe epilepsy I. results of history and physical examination." Ann Neurol 34: 774-780.

Williamson, P. D., D. D. Spencer, et al. (1985b). "Complex partial seizures of frontal lobe origin." Ann Neurol 18: 497-504.

 

 
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