Lives of the fellows

Charles Richard Croft

b.1 July 1902 d.4 September 1981
TD(1945) BA Oxon(1923) MRCS LRCP(1926) BM BCh(1926) DM(1930) MRCP(1934) FRCP(1967)

Born in College Street, Winchester, though to his later discomfort never registered, Charles Richard Croft was the youngest of the four children of William Bleaden Croft, the first science master at Winchester College and known to generations as ‘The Bleeder’. WB Croft went up to Pembroke College from Christ’s Hospital with a classical scholarship, taking a first class in mathematics (though unclassified in the compulsory classics papers) in 1873. Winchester appointed him to teach mathematics but soon afterwards sent him back to Oxford to read Natural Science (physics and chemistry) in which he was again placed in Class 1. He came to enjoy a considerable reputation away from Winchester, serving as external examiner at Oxford and was the first to demonstrate successfully in this country, at the Physical Society in 1893, Branly’s coherer which was the early detector of Hertz’s radio waves of 1888.

There was already a tradition of medicine in the family. Croft had had two great-uncles in the profession. His grandfather, Charles Ilderton Croft (1813 -1860), who was apprenticed to one of them, Dr James Croft of George Lane, qualified Lic. Soc. Apoth. in 1834, was Freeman of the City in 1856 and FRCS in 1857. He practised as a surgeon at 6 Lawrence Pountney Hill in the City. Among his nine children were EO Croft, the first professor of gynaecology at Leeds University. A grandson of Croft’s great-uncle, Gilmore Croft, was the successful London surgeon, John Croft, a St Thomas’s surgeon who collaborated with Florence Nightingale in the establishment of the Nightingale Nurses Training School, and who brought plaster of Paris (‘The Croft Splint’) to England.

At Charterhouse, Croft took the traditional classics course and was accepted by Trinity College, Oxford, but in the interval he rapidly learnt up the necessary sciences at a London crammer and was thus able to start straight away on medicine at Trinity, where his tutor was EGT Liddell, later professor of physiology. After Oxford he went to St Thomas’s for his clinical training and there he won medical prizes (Toller and Wainwright) in 1925-1926. On qualifying he was appointed house surgeon to Cyril AR Nitch and PH Mitchiner at St Thomas’s. The latter, who had held high rank in the Army during the first world war, suggested that he should make a career in the RAMC. Instead, he moved to Oxford as the house physician at the Radcliffe Infirmary, (there being only one at that time), and worked with Alec Cooke FRCP, who was the one medical registrar there in 1927.

His next appointments, as junior and senior obstetric house surgeons at St Thomas’s, were perhaps to determine his future. He was involved with a distressing case of contraction ring of the uterus in which the foetus was trapped leading to death of the baby and mother, the usual outcome of this condition at that time. He found in the literature a new treatment from Germany using amyl nitrite. At this point, for family reasons, he decided to go into general practice. Arriving in Plymouth for the interview he was met at the station by the senior partner, who was worried by a case of delayed labour. Croft was at once able to diagnose contraction ring and successfully treated the patient with amyl nitrite. For a time this treatment was known as the Croft method. Not unnaturally, he got the job and this case, and subsequent experimental work at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Plymouth, formed the basis of a successful thesis for the Oxford DM in 1930. He married, settled in Plymouth and built up a very successful general practice. In 1934, on the basis of his thesis and publications, he was made MRCP without examination, an unusual distinction. He was subsequently appointed medical registrar at Plymouth and was made consultant physician to South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital there in 1937. He was thus one of the last of the general practitioners to become a consultant physician, a common and honourable route to consulting practice before the turn of the century.

As a Territorial, he was called up at the onset of World War II in which he had a distinguished record, being twice mentioned in despatches. Starting with the campaign in Greece, he went to Crete where, during the evacuation from Heraklion, he arranged to move wounded soldiers under his care, in caves in the hills, onto a ship which, much to his distress, was bombed with the loss of his patients. He then went to Palestine and got together a civilian mobile ambulance which had been given to the British Army by American philanthropists. This collection of vehicles and tents he commanded as the Number One Mobile Military Hospital throughout the African desert campaign. He claimed at that time to be an expert on tentpoles! This hospital, with full operating theatres, was used between casualty clearing stations and base hospitals, being regarded with circumspection by the Army establishment as it did not conform to a standard Army pattern. After the war, Croft was asked for a report on it which was published in the RAMC Journal, as his unique experience with a mobile hospital was felt useful for planning for modern warfare. He ended the war a full colonel with command of a general hospital in Rome.

He returned to Plymouth, worked up his old practice from a basement in Devonport and, in 1947, just before the National Health Service came in, he sold it and moved to consulting work full time. He ran a rheumatology clinic, was a member of the Heberden Society and an active supporter of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council. He was a brilliant diagnostician and in domiciliary practice his colleagues also appreciated his background as a general practitioner. He had an interest in clinical endocrinology and was president of the Plymouth Medical Society 1966 — 1976. In addition to scientific and clinical papers, he wrote on Sir William Osier and Sir Richard Croft, the Royal obstetrician, who was not an ancestor but who, he felt, had been wrongly accused of the death of Princess Charlotte and the potential heir apparent.

He was a kind and gentle man whose Christian beliefs were enhanced by Freemasonry in which he rose to high levels. His own general practitioner, an Irishman with a mischievous sense of humour, claimed that he was the only English gentleman that he had ever known! In 1928 he married Phyllis Mary Lee, whose ancestors included an early eighteenth century physician, Dominic Lee of Louth, Lincolnshire, who had emigrated from Kilkenny near Dublin, qualified MD in Louvain in 1715 and who married a cousin of Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle the chemist, and Thomas Warton, a poet laureate. Two of his three sons qualified from Oxford and St Thomas’s and both took a DM (Oxon), the second being marked in 1973 by a dinner in Christ Church. The company included six FRCPs, one being the regius professor of medicine, Sir Richard Doll. His eldest son is physician at St Thomas’s Hospital. He died at home in Kingsclere, Hampshire, where he moved after retirement.

DN Croft

[Brit.med.J., 1982, 284, 62]

(Volume VII, page 123)

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