Lives of the fellows

Edward Derek Huxley Cowen

b.1 March 1917 d.23 July 1982
BA Cantab MB BChir(1941) MRCS LRCP(1941) MRCP(1943) MD(1947) FRCP(1968)

EDH Cowen — known always as Tim (from a childhood nickname referring to his then tiny stature!) — came from an illustrious scientific background. He was related to the great TH Huxley whose sister married a Cowen: thereafter the family name became Huxley Cowen. His paternal grandfather, George Huxley Cowen was a general practitioner in New Malden, Surrey, and died in 1923. George’s son, Edward George Huxley Cowen (Tim’s father) was a successful and much loved GP in Sutton, Surrey, and during the first war served in the RAMC. After the war, at a comparatively late age, he took his Membership and became consultant physician to the J Arthur Rank film organization, where he organized one of the first industrial medical departments in the country.

Tim Cowen was born in Blackpool, and he never had any other ambition than to become a doctor. After attending Wellesley House School and Canford School, Dorset, in due course he took his medical degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and afterwards qualified at St Thomas’s Hospital. He had suffered a severe mastoid infection as a boy of 13 which impaired his hearing in one ear. Later, early in the war, he had another mastoid infection (sadly before the days of antibiotics) and his other ear was seriously affected. It was considered unlikely that he could carry on his medical career, as he became almost totally deaf in one ear, and had only very limited hearing in the other. He was therefore unable to join the Forces, but worked throughout the war as registrar in Westminster Hospital, under very unpleasant conditions owing to the frequent bombings — the hospital being hard hit on many occasions through the war. He had then a hearing aid, and was determined to overcome all the seemingly impossible barriers to his becoming a consultant.

After the war he held the Elmore medical research studentship at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, to work on the development of phonocardiography, which was reported to the Cardiac Society in June 1948. He than became senior registrar and honorary medical tutor to John McMichael (now Sir John) at the postgraduate medical school, Hammersmith. His great interest in hearts remained with him throughout his career, although it was in diabetes that he specialized later. Finally he obtained the post of consultant physician at the Lister Hospital, Hitchin, and the St Albans City Hospital in 1950. At that time, having put in for every consultant post in or near London (along with 60 or so other equally well-qualified applicants) he had begun to feel that his deafness was a real bar to his advancement. But this was not so; in fact his deafness, although imposing a great strain on his general health, was never an apparent disadvantage to him in his career.

He became very skilful at lip-reading and always asked his staff at the hospital to look at him while speaking and not to mumble. He found, however, that very few junior members of his team ever remembered to do this for him — perhaps out of shyness; he therefore took to speaking very loudly to them in the hope that it might result in their reciprocating by shouting back. But the marvel was that he managed so well, and that many of his patients and acquaintances never realized that he was deaf at all.

Tim Cowen was over 30 years at Lister Hospital and St Albans, and saw and initiated many developments. The distance between these two hospitals was nearly twenty miles, and one day was spent at one hospital and the alternate day at the other; so that there was quite a heavy amount of travelling as well as a large number of beds and clinics to deal with. There was only one colleague (who was already there), and between the two of them they were responsible for the heavy work load of both in and outpatients.

Fortunately, both Tim Cowen and his colleague were lucky in having good junior medical staff, because quite experienced men had just been demobilised from the Services and wanted junior posts at first. The work load was so heavy however that there was little time for clinical research, although later Tim Cowen started a diabetic clinic at the Lister Hospital which he continued right up until the time of his retirement, and made this one of his special interests. In those days there was little in the way of supporting consultants, and Tim Cowen and his colleague covered not only general medicine but also neurology and physical medicine.

In due course, however, specialist consultants were appointed, which relieved the pressure on the two general physicians, although the work load remained heavy in view of the area covered. In addition there were three cottage hospitals that were liable to call on their services at any time. Tim Cowen and his colleague were also available for domiciliary visits — not infrequently when the day’s work at hospital was done, people were visited with their doctor (which was the customary thing in those days), often to see two or three patients fairly late at night. The general practitioners soon learnt to respect Tim’s opinion and knew that his integrity was such that unless things were done in a proper professional manner he did not want to have anything to do with it.

Tim Cowen was an excellent teacher and many of his junior staff got good consultant posts in various parts of the world. His patients felt confidence and affection for him, and his straightforward manner and integrity made him a reliable and loyal colleague.

In 1948 he married Rosamund Rieu, the daughter of EV Rieu, who was amongst other things a translator of the classics, in particular of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, and who started, with Sir Allen Lane, the Penguin Classic Series, and was editor for many years. Tim Cowen had five children by the marriage, three daughters and two sons. The scientific trend remains strong in the family. The eldest son, John, is a GP in private practice in London; his second son, Huxley, (named after TH) took a degree in marine biology at London University, and his youngest daughter, Bryony, studied biochemistry at St Andrews University. Tim’s family and his home became the great joy of his life.

For the last twelve years of his life, he had a villa in the Monchique mountains in the Algarve, Portugal, which became his other great joy, and a place where he spent nearly all his holidays — repairing, mending, painting and generally keeping himself happy and occupied. He was never so happy as when employed on the many different ‘odd jobs’ in the house and garden, and apart from carpentry, plumbing, electrics etc., he had a remarkable knowledge of mechanics and regularly repaired and serviced many pieces of machinery, from cars down to mowing machines and kitchen appliances.

He was a keen shot and enjoyed a week-end’s grouse shooting in Yorkshire, and pheasant and partridge week-ends in Hampshire or Northumberland. His other interests included golf, which on his retirement (only two months before he died) he had decided to take up more seriously - his colleagues had presented him with a fine new set of golf clubs as a retirement present. He also loved music and most evenings put on a record or two - very loud, so as to get the maximum impact. He particularly loved operatic arias, and in moments of high spirits could often be heard holding forth with some favourite snippet of opera in full voice.

As regards his character, one of his outstanding qualities was his capacity to combine a wicked, often outrageous sense of humour with tremendous humanity and warmth. In the words of a nephew ‘he was one of the few great humorists I have ever met who gave one at all times the clear sensation that he was very much in love with the world and with people - he loved to laugh with the world rather than against it’. He could be disconcertingly candid and was gravely suspicious of charm or facile conversation in others. He had very little regard for his own popularity, and did not hesitate to criticize or be ruthlessly frank if he considered it would help that person.

He referred to Casa Rosa, his villa in Portugal, as his paradise on earth, and it was fitting that it was there, overlooking the magnificent view down to the Algarve coast, and reading his favourite author, Laurens van der Post, that he suffered the brain haemorrhage which was to take him within a few hours perhaps to another kind of paradise.

PJW Mills

[Brit.med.J., 1982, 285, 819]

(Volume VII, page 115)

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