Obituary: Professor W Stewart Hillis OBE, professor of sports medicine

Professor Stewart Hillis OBE: Expert in sports medicine who was the long-term doctor of the Scottish football team. Picture: SNS
Professor Stewart Hillis OBE: Expert in sports medicine who was the long-term doctor of the Scottish football team. Picture: SNS
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Born: 28 September, 1943, in Clydebank. Died: 21 July, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 70

The death of Stewart Hillis has robbed Scottish football and indeed the game worldwide of a stalwart figure in the field of sports medicine and a man whose expertise and personal qualities gained him respect across the globe.

It is no exaggeration to say that Hillis was one of the Scottish pioneers of sports and exercise medicine which is now seen as very much a discipline in itself. He was best known to the public, however, as the long-term doctor to the Scottish national football team, having held that position for 228 international matches in a 40-year career in football.

Always known as Stewart, William Stewart Hillis was born the son of a foreman at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank two years after the Clydeside town was devastated by Nazi bombers.

He received his primary and secondary education in his native town, including being one of the original pupils at the then new Linnvale Primary and then latterly attending Clydebank High School.

He studied medicine at Glasgow University, graduating in 1967. His expertise from the outset was cardiology, which he went on to study at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he acquired a taste for Country and Western music.

As a junior doctor he began to follow Clydebank FC, the club which, after an ill-fated merger with East Stirlingshire, was brought to New Kilbowie Park in the town by the Steedman family and which joined the Scottish League in 1966.

By 1970 he had become the club doctor, a position he would hold for 27 years – his “fee” was a turkey each Christmas – and in 1976 he was asked by the Scottish Football Association to look after the under-21 team.

At the same time he was developing his medical career, becoming recognised as a leading cardiologist and appointed consultant in 1977.

His involvement with football saw him become increasingly interested in the whole field of sport, exercise and medicine, and while working at the Western Infirmary he was soon recognised not only as a brilliant cardiologist but also an authority on sports medicine.

His book, Cardiovascular Disease (Treatment in Clinical Medicine), which he co-wrote with AR Lorimer was recognised as a classic work on publication in 1985, and he would go on to write and co-write many more influential books and papers.

In 1982, Scotland manager Jock Stein oversaw Hillis’s appointment as team doctor for the national XI. Always the most pleasant of characters, Hillis enjoyed banter with a succession of Scotland managers, and was always a welcome personality in the dressing room, but was particularly close to Stein.

He was on duty the night that Stein collapsed and died after the World Cup qualification match against Wales in Cardiff on 10 September, 1985.

Despite Hillis’s best efforts, the damage to Stein’s heart was too great and he died on the treatment table in the Scotland dressing room.

Recalling that awful night some 13 years later, Hillis said in an interview: “Trying to resuscitate someone you know and are very fond of is perhaps the most difficult thing a doctor will face.”

Some 11 years later, while working at the Scotland team hotel during the 1996 European Championships, Hillis did succeed in saving the life of a security guard who collapsed with a suspected heart attack.

He saved many, many more lives in his career, and in developing the university courses in sports and exercise medicine in which Glasgow is now a world leader, he has left a legacy to Scotland which will benefit the nation’s health for generations to come.

One of his greatest achievements was to convince the SFA to set up the Sports Medicine Centre inside the refurbished Hampden Park, the first of its kind in a national stadium.

Hillis had a less successful spell as club doctor for a season at Rangers FC in the late 1990s where he blamed himself for not realising that expensive import Daniel Prodan of Romania was more badly injured than was first thought, though in truth there was considerable falsification of medical records involved in the £2.2 million transfer.

Hillis had been sought after by football’s European governing body Uefa as early as 1986, when he became a member of Uefa’s medical committee, later becoming vice-chairman of that body.

He also advised Fifa on medical issues for many years, while in Scotland he successfully campaigned for anti-doping and heart screening measures.

He also pleaded with the Scottish Government over the widespread introduction of defibrillators at sporting venues, while also advocating that young people should be checked for heart conditions before taking up strenuous exercise.

The disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007 caused Hillis personal heartache as her cardiologist father Gerry was a close friend and colleague, the two men having published medical papers together.

Calling on an old friend, Sir Alex Ferguson, it was Hillis who arranged for publicity at Old Trafford and for Portuguese national hero Cristiano Ronaldo to make a televised appeal about the missing girl.

He stepped down as national team doctor at the age of 66, but continued to work at the Western Infirmary while holding honorary positions as a research fellow at Glasgow University and at Golden Jubilee Hospital in his beloved Clydebank.

In 2008, Hillis was awarded the prestigious Sir Robert Atkin prize by the Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine, and at the end of the following year he was awarded the OBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List for services to medicine and sport, a dual nomination that greatly pleased him.

In person, Stewart Hillis was affable and kindly, always full of anecdotes gained over 40 years in the game. He was always willing to tell a story against himself, the mark of a man who is confident in his skills, as indeed he was.

A lifelong active member of the Church of Scotland, Hillis was for long an elder at Abbotsford Church in Clydebank which is now linked with Dalmuir Barclay Church in the town, with himself convening the nominating committee which appointed the minister for the newly linked parishes.

Hillis successfully battled prostate cancer some years ago, but in May he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer often associated with asbestos disease.

Stewart Hillis is survived by his wife Anne, sons Andrew, Ally and Iain and daughter Sara and his ten grandchildren. Details of his funeral service to be held at Wellington Church adjacent to Glasgow University will be announced in due course.

It has already been suggested that the SFA might consider renaming the Sports Medicine Centre at Hampden after Hillis.

Modest as he was, he would not have countenanced such an honour in his lifetime, but it would surely now be an entirely appropriate tribute to a man who will be greatly missed by many in football and beyond.