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William Odling-Smee: I started work at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1970, having to deal with kneecappings, bombs in the Abercorn and the Rose and Crown... I'd had experience of warfare in Nigeria, but it was a bleak time

In conversation this week with William Odling-Smee


Helping others: William Odling- Smee tended to many injured people throughout the Troubles

Helping others: William Odling- Smee tended to many injured people throughout the Troubles

Helping others: William Odling- Smee tended to many injured people throughout the Troubles

William Odling-Smee is a retired consultant surgeon at the Royal Victoria and Mater hospitals in Belfast and a long-time curate at St George's in High Street. He has been married to Anne for 60 years.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I was born in 1935 at the London Clinic in Marylebone Road, because my mother Katherine was working as a public health doctor in that borough. My twin sister Mary was born about half-an-hour later. My mother qualified as a doctor in 1926 in Edinburgh, of which she was a native. Women doctors were scarce at that time and most authorities and hospitals would not employ them. So, she went to England, first to Birmingham, where she met my father Charles, and then to London.

My father was born in Surrey and trained as a civil engineer. In 1939, he decided to seek ordination in the Church of England and was ordained in Ripon Cathedral in 1941. He spent most of his ministry in Yorkshire. I was baptised when I was three months old. My secondary school was in Durham, the school of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral. I was confirmed there in 1950 by Bishop Michael Ramsey, then Bishop of Durham, and later Archbishop of Canterbury.

Q. How did you come to faith?

A. Durham School had a major influence on me and, in particular, the headmaster Canon H K Luce, a socialist. He introduced me to the concept that if we were followers of Jesus Christ, then we ought to be taking effective action as a community to alleviate the distress of the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, those who were naked, the sick and those in prison.

I decided that I wanted to be a doctor and this was encouraged when a doctor who worked in a mission hospital in India came and talked about his work. I'd thought about being ordained, but dismissed it as something with which I would not be happy, so I went on to the University of Durham School of Medicine and qualified as a doctor in 1959. I was a house officer in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne and then worked in a mission hospital in India.

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Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

A. Yes, when I was at university I did not believe in Christianity for two years. I joined the SCM and was very much supported by them in my first year. However, in my second year, I decided that I did not believe in God. But there was a mission, led by Bishop Michael Ramsey, and one of the missioners was David Jenkins, who subsequently became the Bishop of Durham. I explained why I did not believe in God and he, over several days, explained that there were alternative ways of thinking about God and this got me thinking again.

At the same time, I met and fell in love with Anne, a social studies student, who was a Catholic. This forced me to believe in God again, in the David Jenkins style, and we explored the difference between Anglicans and Catholics in some detail.

We were married in 1959 and our first daughter, Margaret, was born in 1960. When she was nine months old, we went out to the hospitals of the Diocese of Nandyal in South India on a three-year contract. We had five other children - Katharine, Patrick, James, Elizabeth, who is deceased, and Hugh. We have 10 grandchildren.

Q. What did you learn from your time in India?

A. Working in a country mission hospital I had to learn the hard way. I learned that the most important part of being a doctor is your relationship with the patient. In those circumstances, there was not much that could be done for many of them, so the relationship was very important.

I also realised that I could do a lot more for people in that situation if I could do surgery and so we came home and I trained as a surgeon in Newcastle upon Tyne. I got my FRCS in 1968 and started looking for a consultant job, but because of my tropical experience, I was seconded to a medical unit sent out by the British Government to reopen the teaching hospital in Enugu, which had been closed because of the civil war in Nigeria in 1969.

We came back to the north east and I started looking for a job. I applied for one in Belfast, believing I had little chance, as there would be lots of local candidates. To my surprise, I was offered the job. So, we came to Belfast in 1970 and I started to work at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Q. What did you think of Belfast in 1970?

A. This was at the beginning of the Troubles and I was plunged right into it, having to deal with kneecappings, bombs in the Abercorn, the Rose and Crown and several other places. I'd had experience of warfare in Nigeria and so was able to deal with most injuries, but it was a bleak time. However, I found time to edit a medical book called Trauma Care, which documented our experiences.

Q. What became your speciality in surgery?

A. As the Troubles receded, I became more interested in cancer and, particularly, in breast cancer. With Douglas Roy, I set up a specialist breast clinic and to do some research on the hormone treatment of breast cancer, which lead to the five-year survival for breast cancer increasing from 68% to 90%, where it is today.

I was also interested in the patients dying from their cancers and so, when Sidney Stewart asked me to join a group who hoped to set up a hospice for the care of the dying, I was only too glad to join him. We set up the Northern Ireland Hospice and I was the first chair of the council.

Q. Why did you decide to become ordained?

A. In 1976, the Bishop of Connor, Arthur Butler, mentioned to me that the Church of Ireland was going to ordain people who would remain in their occupations, but carry the message into the community and serve the Church as they were able. I find it difficult to say what made me seek ordination. I had rejected it as a teenager and so why should I do it when I was 42?

Yet, it seemed a natural progression and so, in 1977, I was ordained a deacon and served in St Thomas' Church on the Lisburn Road under Canon Eric Elliot. I was subsequently ordained a priest in 1978. After 13 years at St Thomas', Bishop Poyntz asked me to move to St George's, where I have been the curate ever since.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?

A. No one has seriously challenged my faith - I wish they would!

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church?

A. Yes, often. In the past, it was because of the difficulty that women had in being ordained and now it is about the attitude to gay people.

Q. Are you afraid to die?

A. No, in fact I am curious to know what it will be like, having watched many people die. Is there anything beyond death?

Q. What do you think of people of other faiths?

A I am prepared to welcome and take seriously all those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. I lived for three years in a Hindu culture and I think they are seekers, just as I am. This would apply to Islam and all other faiths.

Q. Has religion hindered, or helped, in Northern Ireland?

A. What would it have been like if St Patrick had never come to Ireland and if Christianity had not developed as it has?

Q. How much are you fulfilled at St George's?

A. The worship is very rich and the music is wonderful and all this points to there being some kind of "other", even though it cannot be thought of as "the man up there who interferes and regulates our lives down to the last detail".

I am now old and I have two things that arise out of my experience. One is that God is not a person, but is the "ground of our being" and is personified in Jesus Christ. My experience also suggests to me that if someone wants to follow Jesus Christ, he or she must join together with others to alleviate the conditions that so many of our fellow human beings live under - the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger or immigrant, the naked, the sick and dying and those in prison.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. At the Eucharist in St George's, but God is close to me all the time.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. I want my ashes to be buried with my daughter in Roselawn and for my name to be under hers.

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