Dr. Discovers Method of Operating on Child Before Birth

The following article was printed in the Interim on July 24, 1983 –

Sir William Liley, a career devoted to life

Professor Sir William Liley , who gained international recognition  for his pioneering work into pre-natal blood transfusions, died suddenly at his Epsom home June 15 ,1983. he was 54.

Sir William, who was knighted in 1973, made medical history  in 1963 when he became the first doctor to give a baby a blood transfusion before birth.

The technique, which he pioneered while working as a senior research fellow at national Women’s Hospital in Auckland, was aimed at saving the lives of babies having an R.H. blood group incompatible with that of their mother.

Because of this incompatibility the mother’s antibodies sometimes fatally attacked the baby’s red blood cells.

The technique devised by Sir William involved passing a hollow needle into the infant’s abdominal wall and using this to give a transfusion of red cells compatible with the baby, but not able to be affected by the mother’s antibodies.

The technique has been adopted at maternity hospitals throughout the world and is estimated to have saved thousands of baby’s lives.


Research which led to the technique began in 1957 when Sir William, then DrLiley , was senior medical research fellow at the Auckland University Postgraduate School of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Sir .William, who was born in Auckland , went to Auckland Grammar School. He topped New Zealand in the university entrance examination in 1947 and was later awarded a scholarship at Auckland University wher he studied forestry and nature.

He graduated in medicine at the Otago University school of medicine and furthered his studies at the university of Australia at Canberra where he was resident fellow in neurosurgery.

International recognition for Sir William’s work in the field of prenatal transfusions led to his being invites to spend a year as research fellow at the Columbia presbyterian  Medical Centre , University of Columbia, in New York in 1964.

In 1965 Sir William was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. In 1968 he was appointed to a personal chair in the Postgraduate School of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Auckland University as professor in perinatal physiology, a post he still held at his death.

In 1971, at the age of 42, Sir William was the youngest practitioner to be appointed a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Sir William was a co-founder of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child in 1970 and was the organisation’s president for several years.

In 1972 he testified in the United States Supreme Court in a case to determine whether abortion infringed the constitutional rights of unborn children. He said he was opposed to abortion on medical rather than religious grounds.


In 1978 he was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Paul VI.

Sir William retained a keen interest in Auckland Grammar School and was deputy chairman of the Auckland Grammar Schools Board.

Sir William married his doctor wife, in 1953. They had two sons and three daughters, and adopted a two-year old Down’s syndrome child in 1976.

Lady Liley is responsible for the organization of preparation for parenthood classes at National Women’s Hospital.

The couple spent their time farming an 88-hectare property near Benneydale in the King Country, on the headwaters of the Mokau river.

The head of the post-graduate school of obstetrics and gynaecology at National Women’s Hospital, Professor Dennis Bonham, said staff at the hospital were left stunned by Sir William’s death.

“We were working together yesterday…and he was at full flight,” he said.

Professor Bonham said it would be many years before Sir William’s breadth and depth of experience could be replaced.


He said that Sir William had a remarkable breadth of knowledge as a scholar. But in addition to his academic knowledge he was immensely practical.

“He was an experienced forester,” Professor Bonham said, “the sort of person you could ask to fix anything. He was entirely down to earth. He would roll up his sleeves and help you do it.”

He said Sir William was a great supporter of humanitarian principles and he regarded the foetus as a personality and very much his patient.

Sir William had an inexhaustible fund of original anecdotes.

At his death, Sir William had been working on detecting and studying why some families appeared to be prone to be affected by antibodies whole others did not.

He was also looking into malformations of the foetus which could be detected and corrected before birth. He was measuring the amount of plasma increase in pregnant women as an early sign of trouble with the baby.

Professor Bonham said the work certainly would continue at National Women’s but there were few properly trained physiologists in the world and Sir William would be hard to replace.


The administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland, the Most Rev John Rogers, expressed the regrets of the Catholic community on the death of Sir William.

“He was a brilliant scientist, as evidenced by his pioneering work on the transfusion of the child in the womb,” said Bishop Rogers. “Although he was not a Catholic, the Pope appointed him to the Pontifical Institute of Science. Even more important that his professional work was his moral character.”

Bishop Rogers said he would arrange special prayers for Sir William.

The president of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, Mr. Peter Barry-Martin, said the world pro-life movement mourned the death of one of its most powerful advocates.

Sir William’s scientific genius discovered the nature of life in the womb and as a humanitarian he had striven to protect that life.

His personal warmth and unassuming charm marked him as a true gentleman, said Mr. Barry-Martin. “As a philosopher doctor, he brought a rare insight into many of the major issues of our day.

“All in the pro-life movement have lost a lodestar,” said Mr. Barry-Martin.

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