Doctor to the Scottish football team

Doctor to the Scottish football team

Born: September 28, 1943. Died: July 21, 2014.

PROFESSOR William Stewart Hillis OBE, who has died aged 70, had been looking forward to the Commonwealth Games more than most. He was one of the first doctors in the world to focus on sports science, the treatment and prevention of sports injuries using physiology, psychology, biomechanics and nutrition, and when he got into the discipline, it was revolutionary. Now it is considered essential by major athletes and will play a major role in the Glasgow Games.

Professor Hillis, who was emeritus professor of cardiology and exercise medicine at Glasgow University, was perhaps best-known to the Scottish public as the official doctor to the national football team over nearly four decades and 228 international first team matches, making him probably the longest-serving medic in inter­national football.

He worked with eight different managers/coaches, from Jock Stein to the incumbent Gordon Strachan, and was the first to treat Mr Stein when he suffered heart failure after a Wales-Scotland World Cup qualifier in Cardiff in September 1985 and later died.

"Jock's last words were 'It's a whole lot better now, doc,'" the professor later recalled. "It's bad not to be able to resuscitate someone. But trying to resuscitate someone you know and are very fond of is perhaps the most difficult thing a doctor will face."

During his career at the SFA, Professor Hillis also had a spell as medical adviser to Rangers in the late 1990s and spent 27 years as official doctor to Clydebank Football Club during their league status, mostly at New Kilbowie Park. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Sports Medicine Centre at Hampden Park, the first of its kind, and he pushed hard for anti-doping checks and peremptory heart-screening to prevent avoidable tragedy on sports fields in Scotland and beyond.

He was also one of the first football doctors to push for having defibrillators in stadiums, something that has probably saved several lives since. His successor at the Hampden Centre, and as the Scotland football team's doctor, Dr John MacLean, said: "I have lost a mentor and a friend."

But Professor Hillis's expertise and reputation went far beyond Scotland. He was invited on to the medical committee of the European Football Union (Uefa) and was hired as a medical adviser to the sport's global governing body, Fifa. An honest man who never sought financial gain from his skills, he never felt quite comfortable dealing with the Fifa bureaucracy in Zurich.

William Stewart Hillis, the son of a shipyard foreman at John Brown's, was born in Clydebank in 1943, when Clydeside still lived in fear of Luftwaffe bombings two years after the Clydebank Blitz.

He attended Linnvale Primary and then Clydebank High before studying medicine at Glasgow University, graduating in 1967. Focussing on cardiology, he had a spell studying in Nashville, Tennessee, where he inevitably got to know numerous guitar pickers and developed a life-long love of Country and Western music.

Back home as a junior doctor, and ultimately at the Western Infirmary on Dumbarton Road, he began following his local team, Clydebank FC, who would soon hire him as their official doctor. His salary? A turkey every Christmas.

An SFA visitor to New Kilbowie Park had heard of the skills and modern ideas of this young man on what would become known as sports science. The SFA invited him to be doctor and medical adviser to the Scotland Under-21 team. Just after the World Cup in Spain in 1982, he was promoted to look after the first side, including players such as Danny McGrain, Joe Jordan, Alex McLeish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Gordon Strachan.

As consultant cardiologist at Glasgow University from 1977, he developed the first BSc degree in sports medicine and MSc in sports and exercise medicine. It was not obvious then, but such specialist studies would eventually change the face of sport, as will be demonstrated in Glasgow during the next week and a half.

Professor Willis furthered his ideas in several books and influential medical publications. One book, Cardiovascular Disease (1985), co-written with Bellshill-born Glasgow University professor A. Ross Lorimer, became something of a textbook in the field.

From Mr Stein to Mr Strachan, Scotland managers/coaches said Professor Willis added as much to the psychological wellbeing of their teams as the medical, not least through his Glasgow patter with the players. According to Mr Strachan: "The prof always lit up the room with his personality."

He retired from his job with the SFA four years ago but continued to consult at the Western Infirmary, as a research fellow at Glasgow University and at the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Clydebank.

The disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007 caused him particular heartache. He had worked with Madeleine's father Gerry, a Glaswegian who had gained a degree in physiology and sports science after doing one of the professor's courses at Glasgow University and becoming a consultant cardiologist.

With the help of old friends such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Professor Willis was instrumental in getting the then Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo to appear on British and Portuguese television with an appeal for information about Madeleine.

Campbell Ogilvie, president of the SFA, said: "I have had the pleasure of knowing Stewart for almost 40 years and consider him a man of great knowledge, experience and wisdom. He was a medic of the highest standards and we are all fortunate he brought those standards to the Scottish FA during his time as international team doctor and medical director and adviser.

"As well as his professional capabilities, he was also terrific company and I know that his personality, sense of humour and repartee were as essential to many Scotland national teams under many national coaches as his medical expertise."

Professor Hillis was a lifelong member and supporter of the Church Of Scotland, serving as an elder at Abbotsford Church, Clydebank, which became linked with Dalmuir Barclay Church.

He was awarded an OBE by the Queen in the 2010 New Year's honours list for his work in both sports and medicine, an unusual double-whammy that gave him immense pleasure.

He appeared to beat prostate cancer several years ago but in May of this year was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer usually associated with exposure to asbestos. He died in Glasgow.

He is survived by wife Anne, sons Andrew, Ally and Iain, daughter Sara and 10 grandchildren.