Professor O. Conor Ward

Biographer of Dr John Langdon Down and Patron of the Down’s Syndrome Association

Conor Ward was born in 1923 in County Monaghan, the son of a medical doctor. Following graduation in 1946, he spent 7 years in Liverpool at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. In 1956 he was appointed Paediatrician and Paediatric cardiologist at the newly founded Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin.

Conor is internationally recognised for being the first to describe a potentially lethal disorder of cardiac electric conductance associated with  sudden collapse. This has been designated internationally as the Ward-Romano syndrome. He has been awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa by University College Dublin.

He spearheaded the development of cardiology and cardiac surgery services for children in Ireland. This included identifying cardiac defects in ill babies and building a system that could repair these anomalies in the architecture of the child’s heart.

He championed the cause of children and families who had conditions that were often misunderstood by society, Down’s syndrome and Sudden Infant Death. His care for children with Down’s syndrome resulted in him receiving lifetime service awards from the Down’s syndrome associations in Ireland and the UK. Through his research and writing, (including a PhD undertaken after his retirement) he is identified as the preeminent authority on the life of Dr John Langdon Down who described the syndrome.

Conor is Professor Emeritus of paediatrics at University College Dublin. Following a visit to Dublin by Dr. Siegfried Pueschel of Rochester in 1984 he set up a medical screening programme for children with Down’s syndrome and he became Honorary Medical Advisor and later Patron of Down Syndrome International.

Conor obtained a PhD for his research which led to the biography entitled John Langdon Down: A Caring Pioneer, published by the Royal Society of Medicine Press. This received an award from the British Society of Authors. This book was later adapted into Dr John  Langdon Down and Normansfield.

With his wife Pauline he participated as a voluntary worker in the support of families with Down’s syndrome. Both were associated with the Children’s Sunshine Home, a long stay residential facility for disabled children.

Conor was instrumental in preserving the archives of Dr John Langdon Down which are held in the Langdon Down Museum and London Metropolitan Archives.

On Thursday 2 June 2016, the University conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa on Professor Conor Ward.

Lord Brian Rix

A passionate campaigner on behalf of people with learning disabilities and their families

Following service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, Brian set up his own theatre company in 1947 and married the actress Elspet Gray whom he met there. The pair regularly co-starred in TV, radio and theatre productions, though Brian was best known for his farces which ran at the Whitehall Theatre for more than 16 years before moving on to The Garrick Theatre.

In 1951 Brian and Elspet’s first child Shelley was born with Down’s syndrome and the young couple found there was no support system for their family. Brian always recalled the doctor’s advice, to “put her away, forget about her, start again”.  Brian later described their experiences as “painful, humiliating and utterly distressing for all of us”. Shelley was assessed at the age of five as “in-educable”. Her parents searched for the best residential care for Shelley and subsequently placed her at Normansfield where they felt she would benefit from the same facilities that the Langdon Down family had created back in 1868.

The League of Friends of Normansfield was founded in 1957, and when Shelley moved in Brian and Elspet began fundraising for the hospital. They organised balls, dinners, race days and other events to provide extra facilities, holidays and other leisure opportunities for the residents until the hospital closed in 1997.

In 2004, when Brian and Elspet retired from the Committee of the Friends of Normansfield, Brian had been the Chairman for 27 years. They became honorary presidents of the Friends, later the Normansfield and Richmond Foundation which today supports people with learning disabilities in the borough of Richmond upon Thames.

Shelley lived in Normansfield until the early 1990s when, with the introduction of Care in the Community, she moved into a community home in Wimbledon. As her health began to deteriorate, she became blind and unable to walk. She died in 2006 and that year Brian wrote a history of 60 years of Mencap and dedicated it to Shelley.

Brian held various roles in Mencap from 1980 and was President until he died. Both he and Elspet campaigned throughout this time to challenge the negative attitudes they and their daughter had faced, and to improve the life chances for those with learning disabilities. Brian did much to modernise the charity, introducing dedicated marketing and parliamentary functions and starting a housing arm to meet the needs of people moving into the community from long-stay hospitals.

In 1992 Brian was appointed a Crossbench life peer with the title Baron Rix of Whitehall. He set about using his voice in the House of Lords to influence critical legislation on health, social care, welfare and education to ensure that the interests of people with learning disabilities and their families were properly represented.

In 2002, Brian and Elspet’s grandson was born and diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. In 2005 Brian commented “this is a coincidence, it is random, but what is so wonderful is that Robbie lives at home, is adored by his family, and enjoys holidays with his parents and grand-parents doing the normal things”.

Brian and Elspet were married for 64 years. Following her death in 2013 and suffering from increasing ill-health, Brian moved into Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors, where he died in 2016 after an illness.

Brian Rix 27.1.1924 – 20.8.2016

This is an adapted version of an obituary by Denise Carr, which first appeared on the Mencap website.