Lives of the fellows

Richard Robins Armstrong

b.28 September 1885 d.7 December 1974
MB BChir Cantab(1909) MRCS LRCP(1909) MRCP(1914) MD(1920) FRCP(1926)

Richard Robins Armstrong was born in Lewisham, the third son of Professor Henry Edward Armstrong FRS, and Frances Louisa Lavers. His father was the first professor of chemistry to be appointed at the City and Guilds Institute and his mother was the daughter of T.H. Lavers, a chemist and druggist.

Armstrong went to St Dunstan’s School, Catford, and after a year’s study of preliminary scientific subjects at London University, to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1903, where he won an Exhibition in 1906. In the following year he gained first class honours in the natural science tripos and admission to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital with a Shuter scholarship, to the delight of his father who had taught chemistry at Bart’s in the 1870s. After qualification in 1909, house appointments at Bart’s and at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and becoming Lawrence research scholar and gold medallist and Ernest Hart memorial scholar, he was admitted MRCP in 1914. Later that year he fought in France and Belgium as a private in the HAC, and was not commissioned in the RAMC until 1915. After service in Gallipoli, he returned home to study the epidemiology of cerebrospinal meningitis, later being posted to an Indian general hospital at Basra as bacteriologist and physician in charge of infectious diseases. On demobilization in 1919 he became casualty physician and demonstrator in pathology at Bart’s and physician to the children’s department at Charing Cross Hospital, resigning the latter appointment in 1921. In that same year he was appointed physician to the Sun Life Assurance Society. Although this was his main professional interest for nearly 40 years, his bacteriological research was pursued until 1934, gaining him jointly the Katherine Bishop Harman prize of the BM A in 1930, and the Nichols prize of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1931.

Because of his professional reputation and influence he persuaded the actuaries to grant increasingly generous insurance terms to those who had hitherto been stigmatized as ‘substandard lives’. On the introduction of insulin, he was the first to recommend special terms for diabetics, and he devised an empirical scale of progressive extrapremium for hypertensives.

He was a generous host, a good friend, and a bon viveur who loved France and drove a French car with characteristic panache. He had a wonderful collection of butterflies, and for many years bred exhibition fantail pigeons, being particularly proud of his appointment as secretary of the Fantail Club. He was married twice; first to Adah Randall, the daughter of a doctor, and after her death, secondly in 1942 to Alison Mary Austen, daughter of Ernest Edward Austen, DSO, keeper of the Department of Entomology, British Museum (Natural History). There were no children by either marriage.

Hugh L’Etang

[Brit.med.J., 1975, 2, 44]

(Volume VI, page 15)

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