In Memoriam: Lilian (Leah) Williams, nee Pion

Today I’m posting something rather different to this blog, and the connection with secondhand smoke is hard to prove. It’s the anniversary of my sister’s death on November 11th, 1988, in Brighton, Sussex, on the south coast of England.

According to the death certificate I have in front of me, the cause of death, certified by D. Elsdon Myers M.B., was:

1a. Carcinomatosis
b. Squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.


Martin Pion & Lilian Williams, nee Pion,
London, March 1988

Lilian was born in Whitechapel, east London, on December 1st, 1930, so she was just two weeks shy of her 58th birthday when she died on November 11th. I had gone back to England on a business trip in March of that year and managed to fit in a visit to see her. It was the first time in several years and we had a grand get-together with family members in the London home of a family friend. The picture above was taken at that time.

In June 1988, Lilian called from England to say she had bad news. She had gone to see her doctor, believing she had a bad case of bronchitis. Instead, she was diagnosed with incurable inoperable lung cancer and given between six months and two years to live.

Lilian's grave in Boscombe Jewish Cemetery

It was hard for me to believe, but the prognosis proved correct and six months later I attended her as she lay unconscious on her deathbed in her home in Brighton, and stayed for her funeral, which was in Bournemouth where we had both grown up and where my father was buried.

It probably took me a year to stop thinking of her almost daily and now, 21 years later, it’s on the day of her death that the sadness and feeling of loss returns most strongly. She was always such a cheerful person, and even shortly before her death remained stoic.

There were many happier times, of course, as illustrated by some of the other photos collected together here. My father died in 1944 just as we were starting to see the benefits of his trade as a tailor. That was because Bournemouth had many hotels which had been requisitioned and in which American and Canadian servicemen were billeted in preparation for the D-Day invasion of France.

Mum, Lilian and me near our tailor's shop, Lansdowne, Bournemouth, circa 1945

We didn’t know that at the time, but my father’s shop in a strategic spot near the town center, called Service Repair Tailors, proved to be in the right place at the right time and business was brisk. Servicemen came in to have uniforms cleaned and pressed, and ribbons sewn on. I remember helping with the latter task because of something that sticks in my memory. I recall a customer coming in to collect his uniform after having had some ribbons sewn on and just as he was about to pay I chimed up that that was a ribbon I had sewn on. The serviceman refused to accept it until it was redone professionally!

So what, if anything, has all this got to do with secondhand smoke? Lilian had been a teacher and eventually became principal lecturer in a teacher training college in Northampton, England.


Lilian in cap and gown


Lilian & husband David on a Greek island. They would visit a different one every year.

I visited her there first before the family get-together a few days later in London. The meeting in the college was an emotional one and, to celebrate, Lilian took me for a meal in the more upscale intimate dining room which also had a lounge area with chairs and tables.

We had just started our meal when a male staff member entered and sat at the far corner of the room, maybe 20 or so feet away, and lit up a cigar. My sister, who had her back to him, didn’t bat an eye but it certainly bothered me, as someone highly sensitive to tobacco smoke.

But what could I do?

We were having the first meal together in years with my sister entertaining me. Then a group of four people sat down closer to us and two lit cigarettes. My sister continued to be unaware of all this tobacco smoke but by now it had become intolerable and I asked my sister, very reluctantly, if we could leave without finishing our meal.

At her funeral in November of that year one of the mourners introduced himself as Harry Diamond, and said he was a very good friend of my sister. What struck me about him was that whenever it was possible for him to smoke he would light up a cigarette.

So here’s my speculation. Unlike me, my sister was evidently not bothered by secondhand smoke yet she was exposed to it daily, both in the teacher’s common rooms at work and when with friends. There’s an estimated 20% chance of secondhand smoke exposure being the cause of premature death of an exposed nonsmoker. I can’t prove it, and my sister’s family was very offended when I suggested it, but that could have been why she died.

However, it reinforces the need to rid everyone’s lives of this avoidable air pollutant. Then no one would ever have to wonder:

Was it secondhand smoke that caused the death of a loved one?

Postscript: After returning to the U.S. I wrote to the head of the training college where my sister had been Principal Lecturer and asked them, in part to honor her memory, if they would consider making it smoke-free. I got a reply saying the request would be considered.

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