Lives of the fellows

Anthony Michael (Sir) Dawson

b.8 May 1928 d.25 September 1997
KCVO(1993) MB BS Lond(1951) MRCP(1954) MD(1959) FRCP(1965)

A superb physician and an outstanding clinical scientist, Tony Dawson was a consultant physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He grew up in Leicester, but went to London for his medical education. He started at King’s College in the Strand for his pre-clinical training, then went to the old Charing Cross Hospital for his clinical work, qualifying in 1951. He often recalled with real fondness and affection the intimate atmosphere of the hospital.

There were three outstanding people who influenced his later career. The first was Francis Avery Jones at Central Middlesex. Tony often recalled that no later gastroenterologist armed with endoscopes and all the modern paraphernalia had ever got better results than Avery and Tanner in the management of haematemesis. Then after a brief period with Sheila Sherlock at the Hammersmith he went to Boston and worked for two years with Kurt Issellbacher. Although by this time he had shown himself a superb general physician and clinical gastroenterologist, he developed strong research interests in intestinal absorption, which continued when he returned to Sheila Sherlock - by this time translated to the Royal Free Medical School as professor of medicine. Soon after he was appointed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital as a NHS consultant, in 1965, at the age of 37. Many people have suggested that Tony was almost the first non-Bart’s-trained consultant to be appointed to the staff. This is quite untrue. Reggie Shooter (former dean) was able to recall 25 non-Bart’s-trained consultants appointed since 1945, before Tony. But this widespread misconception reflects the enormous change that came over Bart’s with Tony’s appointment.

He quickly built up and trained a splendid team of gastroenterologists, many of whom went on to occupy senior posts round the UK. His own work on fat absorption is still highly regarded and quoted today. Everyone at Bart’s in those first exciting years when Tony arrived has told me what a tremendous difference his arrival made. His own ward rounds were legendary - immensely stimulating but also tremendous fun. He put many of his colleagues to shame by never missing a ‘grand round’, however recondite the subjects for discussion: he regarded it as the duty of a physician at a teaching hospital to participate fully in all the academic activities of the hospital.

His outstanding clinical ability was quickly recognized outside Bart’s, and he rapidly built up a large private practice. Unusually, he never felt any insistent need to use the flexible ‘scopes’ which everyone else was using - though he sometimes reflected wryly on his inability to earn the enormous monetary rewards of complex practical procedures. He left these to his junior colleagues. He was appointed physician to the Royal Household and in 1982 became physician to the Queen. He was later appointed head of Her Majesty’s Medical Household.

His clinical skills and knowledge were combined with superb administrative ability. He was seemingly able to solve all problems. At Bart’s he was appointed successively consultant representative on the district medical team and vice-president of the Medical College (presiding over the academic board). After his retirement from Bart’s in 1986 he became a special trustee, then a member of the governing body of Queen Mary College (which by that time embraced Bart’s and the Royal London Medical Schools).

At the Royal College of Physicians he served as Treasurer from 1985 to 1991 and chaired or participated in several working parties: on homelessness and health, on the emotional aspects of physical disorder and on chronic fatigue syndrome. He was closely involved with the King’s Fund, with the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund and with several other charities. At the time of his death he was chairman of the council of the British Heart Foundation.

All this catalogue might suggest someone with ‘gravitas’ (as Osier called it, and which Tony notably had), but perhaps without much capacity to enjoy the social things of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tony’s reign as Treasurer of the Royal College of Physicians brought a great improvement in the College’s wine cellar. He cut in half the width of tables at College dinners, thus making them enormously more sociable occasions.

Tony had an exceptionally happy marriage. His wife Anne was also brought up in Leicester, though they did not meet until both were established in their professions. Both of them had more than their fair share of serious illnesses, but made light of them. Tony himself had a tuberculous knee and always walked with a limp, and latterly with a stick, but never allowed anyone he was with to be aware of his pain or disability. He took delight in his two daughters and three grandchildren. He was an enthusiastic gardener. In the last year of his life the wonderful walled garden near Banbury, which he and Anne created, was opened to the public. Rain fell throughout the day, but - characteristically - Tony said that it was excellent because then he could meet real gardeners. Two recollections: the first a New Year’s Eve dinner in a Hampstead restaurant at which he appeared disguised as a sinister Chicago gangster, accompanied by Anne as a thirties flapper moll, and carrying a sinister black (trumpet) case from which he suddenly produced bangers and streamers. Then at Glyndebourne, glass in hand, sporting a magnificent wide black hat, leaning on a silver-topped cane: a marvellous, loveable man. He died of a myocardial infarction.

John Dickinson

[,1997,315,1470; The Times, 4 Oct 1997; The Independent, 27 Oct 1997]

(Volume X, page 101)

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