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Her legacy at THET

Sylvia Watkins was one of those rare and inspirational people who dedicated her life to helping others. Although sadly, and not unlike many unsung heroes, she was not aware of the extent of her achievements and the high regard in which she was held by her peers, students, colleagues and friends during her life.

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Now, in the words of those closest to her, we are able to tell the story she never heard, of the integrity, strength and loving care that she shared with so many.

Born in 1938 to a family of six generations of doctors, Sylvia’s entry to the medical field was anticipated from an early age. Bright, determined and ambitious, she was awarded a scholarship at Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall, the first College to admit women and a very rare accomplishment for a girl from a convent school in Manchester. Sylvia completed her clinical studies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and as one of the few female physicians in London at the time, was under no illusion that the life of a lady doctor was going to be trouble-free.

Sylvia’s love of the violin also started early on. As a teenager, she won a place in the National Youth Orchestra, an achievement that frequently leads to a career as a professional musician. However, while music remained her special talent, the pull of medicine was too great. In later life, she helped THET enormously by giving concerts with her string quartet, one in the beautiful surroundings of St Bartholomew’s Church, to raise vital funds for our work.

During her life Sylvia visited a number of medical schools in Palestine and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Her elder brother, Peter, and her sister-in-law, Val, were part of the THET team who initially travelled to Jimma and Gondar in Ethiopia, in 1991. It was during that trip that the foundation stones of what is todays’ Non-Communicable Disease programme were laid. Val’s revolutionary vision, to train nurses to deliver diabetic care, has given hope and health to many rural Ethiopians.


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Sylvia had long been a supporter of THET’s work and so, when she retired as a physician, she offered her services to us. She started working at THET early in 2001 where she was regarded as the epitome of loyalty, persistence and quality. In fact within 18 months, she relinquished her salary and used the funds to recruit a junior member of staff to the project team.

Her lifetime passion, became her legacy

Sylvia was appalled by the lack of retention of doctors and nurses in low-income country health systems, and so found her ideal work in the development of postgraduate education for young doctors in Uganda and Ghana.

She recruited trainee physicians from the UK and used her understanding and encouragement to support them to sustain new programmes, until they were locally strong. While she did much initially at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, in Ghana, the newly established Mbarara University in Uganda was her chief focus for its Master of Medicine (MMed). Mbarara’s former Vice-Chancellor, Professor Frederick I.B Kayanja fondly recollects a time when,

“Sylvia paid the rent of a Master of Medicine (MMed) student from her own pocket, so that he had somewhere to study and could continue to attend lectures, while waiting for his scholarship funds to arrive.”

Because of her determination, the MMed course is now fully established and a rich part of the history of the University.  To this day, the course provides the entry point qualification for senior medical staff and previous graduates are now on the staff of the University and working throughout Western Uganda

Sylvia made an enormous contribution to the projects delivered by THET in her role as Development Officer. Her expertise in placing young UK physicians in strategic locations was remarkable and gave a special role to her life. She is remembered vividly by THET’s founder, Professor Sir Eldryd Parry, as she adjusted to her role at THET, “Here was the specialist oncologist now working alongside young, rather green, staff in a long room in the attic of the Royal Society of Medicine”.

Sylvia expected excellence from her juniors; she inspired them with her professional expertise, friendly advice and a commitment that was absolute. Her wisdom filled her students and volunteers with confidence; she made them feel supported, and stayed in touch with a number of them for many years.

Sylvia’s legacy will live on through the many brilliant doctors she taught, supported and mentored, both in the UK and overseas. Her achievements are treasured at THET; she was a generous colleague and a wonderful friend, who greatly enriched our community. We were deeply touched that she, in the true spirit of her life-long and unflinching support of health worker training, remembered us in her will.

Her brother Peter said

“Sylvia had a high regard and love for THET as a respected organisation, characterised by energy and trustworthiness. She wanted her work to continue for many years to come. Sylvia told us that she had left a legacy for THET in her will and following in her footsteps, as we have ourselves, we hope others will do the same.”
Legacy gifts can be transformational for a charity like THET. The impact of legacy gifts can be felt across the organisation. They give us the ability to drive resources towards areas requiring investment and give us the opportunity to think and plan for the long-term.

If you would like to let us know you have already remembered THET in your will please contact Edvige.bordone@thet.org

If you would like to remember THET in your will please contact your solicitor.