Lives of the fellows

William Robert MacFarlane (Sir) Drew

b.4 October 1907 d.27 July 1991
KCB(1965) CB(1962) CBE(1952) OBE(1940) KtStJohn(1977) BSc Sydney(1929) MBBS(1930) MRCP(1938) DTM&H(1938) FRCP(1945) FRCPE(1966)FRACP(1966) Hon FACP(1966) Hon FRCS Eng(1970)

During the 1930s recruiting for the regular RAMC had fallen to a low ebb. The career had become unpopular with UK doctors and fewer graduates from Eire were joining. To young overseas graduates the guarantee of a return passage to England - with opportunities and financial support for postgraduate training, and service in tropical countries - was attractive, and available on appointment to a regular commission. By 1939 Robert Drew was one of a group of high calibre young medical officers in the RAMC from the old Empire countries, all highly trained and qualified and ready to give outstanding service in the second world war, many of them reaching high rank.

William Robert Macfarlane Drew was educated at Sydney Grammar School, Australia, and graduated from Sydney University in 1930. He joined the RAMC in 1931 and served in India from 1932-37 with a period of secondment to the (now Royal) Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith, in 1935. He returned to the school during 1938-39 as a clinical tutor; the quality of the man being recognized early in his career, since only doctors of the highest potential were selected for these posts. Drew’s ability, intelligence, social graces and phenomenal memory earned the respect and friendship of his young colleagues who were later to become leaders of the civilian medical profession. This enabled him, as director of medicine and director general of the Army Medical Services, to call for assistance from the most skilled and powerful doctors in the land. By 1938 he had gained the DTM&H of the University of London and membership of the College and was recognized as a specialist physician in tropical medicine. He was elected a Fellow in 1945.

During the second world war he served in France on the staff of HQ 3rd Corps, being awarded the OBE (Military). After Dunkirk he served as commander of 10 Field Ambulance in the UK before returning to clinical medicine in 1941 to take charge of the medical division of Hatfield Military Hospital. From 1942-46 he held the post of assistant professor of tropical medicine at the Royal Army Medical College in London and he was also medical adviser to the War Cabinet Offices, where he met and gave professional help to the leaders of the country and well deserved the high reputation he gained. During this period he published, with Eric Samuel and M Ball, the first comprehensive account of viral pneumonia and gave courses on tropical diseases to senior students of twelve London medical schools. His excellent lectures on tropical medicine at the RAM College, for newly joined wartime specialist RAMC officers, were well remembered and found invaluable by those who attended prior to posting overseas. In the first six months of General Slim’s offensive in Burma, in 1944, the casualties in killed and wounded were 40,000 but wastage from sickness and diseases totalled 282,000. By 1945, the dramatic reduction made in the incidence of malaria was largely as a result of the impression Drew made on those who attended his lectures.

In 1946 his career took a sudden change of course. He was seconded at Foreign Office request to Iraq as professor of medicine in the University of Baghdad. This was a most critical and sensitive appointment, and by no means an easy one, but Drew rose to the challenge by using his clinical and teaching abilities, together with his energy and social accomplishments, to great effect. He was honorary physician to King Faisal II, to the Royal Household, the prime minister and other senior officials. His reputation spread throughout the Middle East and he was consulted by the rulers and dignitaries in most of the neighbouring states. His medical colleagues valued his opinions, always willingly given, and his relations with them were excellent. He raised the quality and standard of undergraduate teaching by his own untiring efforts and example. A whole generation of doctors in Iraq pay tribute to him and his successors for the high quality of their basic training. He carefully selected the best of his students to be sent to Britain, after qualifying, for postgraduate medical education and the present high standard of medicine in many countries of the Middle East can be attributed to Drew’s pioneering work. For his services he received the honours of Commander of the Order of El Rafidain of Iraq and the CBE in 1952. It was often said that Drew was one of the best and most skilled ambassadors in the Middle East at that time.

After five years of intensive work in Iraq, he was given a sabbatical year at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA, 1951-52. In this leading postgraduate institution he came under the influence of some of the medical intellectual giants of the day and was able to refresh himself and update his medical knowledge of special subjects and modern techniques, while contributing greatly to the teaching from his considerable knowledge of tropical medicine. He became one of the best known visiting doctors to that country and also found time to liaise with and get to know, and become known by, the US Army Medical Service.

In 1952 he returned to the RAM College as professor of tropical medicine and as consultant to the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, London, where he remained until 1955. All doctors joining for National Service attended the introductory courses at Millbank and the effect upon them of this dynamic and learned instructor was considerable.

It soon became apparent that Drew was marked out for high office and he was appointed to command the Cambridge Military Hospital at Aldershot, having to give up his teaching and clinical work to concentrate on medical administration. He revelled in this new challenge and rapidly showed himself to be a capable and energetic administrator with an eagle eye for laziness and incompetence. His ability in this field impressed his seniors not only in the medical services but in the rest of the Army. Under his command, the old Cambridge Hospital was certainly run as a model unit and was modernized accordingly.

In 1957 he turned again to clinical work being in succession consulting physician to Middle East Land Forces, Cyrpus 1957-59, with the rank of brigadier, and then consulting physician to the Army and the director of medicine, Ministry of Defence, 1959-60, with promotion to major general. From 1960-63 he held the post of commandant RAM College, then went to be director of medical services British Army of the Rhine, 1963-65, before returning to the Ministry of Defence as director general of the Army Medical Services with the rank of lieutenant general. He received many honours, following his appointment as CBE in 1952, he received the CB in 1962 and the KCB in 1965. He was appointed a Knight of St John in 1977.

During 1957-69 he contributed to the medical literature on a wide-ranging variety of subjects. Many of his papers were on tropical subjects - heat effects, protozoal and helminthic diseases, plague, cholera, smallpox, malaria and rickettsial diseases - but he also wrote on medical history, both military and civilian, a total output of some 33 papers. His major literary work was to conceive and edit Commissioned Officers in the Medical Services of the British Army,1660-1960, London, Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1968, published during his term as DGAMS and subsequently becoming known as ‘Drew s Roll’. It was a herculean task but his tireless drive and very efficient staff of junior officers, chosen by him to do the work, ensured completion in record time.

During his term of office as director general, Drew was faced with problems resulting from cessation of National Service, the shrinking of the Army and the loss of many overseas stations. Recruiting of doctors to the regular RAMC was again becoming unpopular and he devoted much energy to ensuring that career prospects, postgraduate training and opportunities with suitable pay conditions, were the best that could be offered. His grasp of public relations was considerable and he travelled widely throughout the country so that all medical schools, as well as those in London, were aware of the careers offered in the Army Service.

He had no interest in sports and his main hobby was travel, so he spent much of his time visiting British units abroad and the military medical services of other countries in the Commonwealth and elsewhere. He deplored the low level of research carried out by clinicians in the Army and the lack of funds available for this purpose. He set up a research committee at the Royal Army Medical College, whose membership of distinguished civilians noted for wide experience in this field ensured careful study of the problem and wise advice. As a result several important research projects were set up and Drew was able to obtain funds, by no means liberal, from the MOD and from charitable bodies. Outstanding among these projects was the work on ‘sprue’ in the Far East.

After retiring from the Army in 1970, he became fully involved in one of the subjects nearest to his heart as deputy director of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation. He was active in the specialist institutes of the University of London and was a governor of three famous hospitals - Moorfields Eye, the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and St John’s Eye Hospital, Jerusalem. He was able to retain his interest in and give great assistance to overseas doctors coming to the UK for further training since very many of them came under the aegis of the BPMF. He was active in the affairs of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, becoming a councillor and vice-president in the RCP London, and being elected a Fellow in Edinburgh, Australia and Canada.

He also received the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England - a notable distinction for a physician. He was appointed a lecturer and orator in many institutes and his papers were always carefully prepared and brilliantly presented. He was a compulsive ‘joiner’ and was a member of many earned societies in the UK, Germany, Australia and Jerusalem, holding high office in many: councillor and president of sections in the Royal Society of Medicine, president of the Medical Society of London 1967-68, and president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 1971-73.

He was a commissioner of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; a member of the committee of management of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School; a liveryman of the Society of Apothecaries; a freeman of the City of London and an honorary citizen of the State of Texas, USA. He also found time to do much charity work, with a particular interest in those bodies dedicated to helping blind people. In 1990, although in poor health, he contemplated returning to Iraq to intervene with Saddam Hussein on behalf of the hostages; he withdrew only when others undertook the task.

He married Dorothy Merle Dakingsmith of Bowral, New South Wales, in 1934 and they had a son and three daughters - two daughters were twins who died in infancy. His wife died in 1990, having given him lifelong support: she not only created a garden at each of the 46 houses in which they lived but also tuned the engine of their car with her husband’s stethoscope. His daughter also predeceased him; his son, who is a doctor, survived him.

Sir James Baird

[The Times, 31 July 1991;The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 1991]

(Volume IX, page 133)

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