Dr. Robert Bertram Williams leaves a legacy


From caring for injured Marines in the South Pacific in World War II to operating on uninsured patients in New Hanover and Pender Counties, the welfare of Dr. Bertram Williams’ patients was always his top priority.

Ralph Bertram Williams Jr., a Wilmington native, died at age 95 at New Hanover Regional Medical Center on Monday, Nov. 16, at 10:16 a.m.

Williams was born in Wilmington on July 4, 1920.  He attended New Hanover High School, where he was known for his sharp attire.

“They say when he was in high school, he always wore bow ties,” said Dr. Neil Musselwhite, a retired family practitioner who often referred his patients to Williams when they needed to undergo surgical procedures.

After graduating from high school, Williams earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and attended medical school at Vanderbilt University.

Shortly after completing his studies at Vanderbilt in 1943, Williams joined the U.S. Navy and deployed to Saipan in the Pacific, where he was commissioned onboard a ship caring for wounded Marines. Williams told his son, Robert Bertram Williams III, that his ship was hit by a kamikaze plane.

Following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Aug. 1945, Williams was among the U.S. troops that occupied Japan.

“He said at first there were literally no locals. The ones that had survived had fled the towns and gone to the mountains because they were told that the U.S. Marines were animals,” Williams III said. “Eventually, they came out of the hills down to what was left of the residential areas. There were a few metal shells of buildings remaining, but most of the structures were made of wood and they were completely gone, completely flat.”

After the war, Williams completed his residency at Vanderbilt. He turned down an offer from the dean to teach at the university in order open a private practice, Wilmington Surgical Associates, in his home town in 1951.

“It was a struggle for him to get going. It was literally weeks before he had his first patient,” Williams III said.

At first, Williams depended on referrals from other physicians to establish his patient base. It wasn’t long before he became the area’s leading thoracic surgeon.

“It was unusual to find someone of his caliber and quality in what was then a small town,” Musselwhite said. “We gauged what we did by how Bert Williams did it.”

Williams’ career also includes an instrumental role in founding the New Hanover Regional Medical Center Foundation, and serving as the hospital’s chief of staff.

Williams III said 20-25 percent of his father’s patients were uninsured, so his practice covered the total costs of their procedures.

“Christmas time at our house was something special, mainly because all of those people, even though many of them couldn’t afford to pay, they sure didn’t forget his service,” his son said. “They’d give him hams, pound cakes, fruit cakes and collards. They’d bring the presents to his practice and we’d have to help him unload his car.”

Despite the countless hours he spent treating patients at his practice in downtown Wilmington, and the weekly trips he made to fill a void at Pender Memorial Hospital, Williams still made time to pursue his second passion — farming.

“He was true farmer. He was on the tractor. He was on his hands and knees pulling weeds,” Williams III said.

Williams grew corn, soybeans, and 15-20 varieties of muscadine grapes, and raised cattle and horses. Even in his 90s, Williams visited the farm each day to feed his horses, while hired help took care of the manual labor he was no longer able to do.

Williams also spent time in a cottage at the south end of Wrightsville Beach.

“My wife and I continue that connection today,” Williams III said. “We still have that cottage, and we have our primary residence at the beach, along with three other properties at the beach.”

In the Williams family, four successive generations of men have been born on the Fourth of July beginning with Ralph Bertram Williams. Mr. Ralph, as he was called, was born in Duplin County on July 4, 1876, on the 100th anniversary of the nation’s independence. R. Bertram Williams Jr., was the second in the family to come into the world on July 4, followed by Bert III. The youngest, Tram, was born on July 4, 1982.

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