Lives of the fellows

John Alastair Dudgeon

b.9 November 1916 d.9 October 1989
CBE(1977) TD(1947) MC(1942) BA Cantab(1937) MA(1944) MRCS LRCP(1944) MB BChir(1944) MD(1947) MRCP(1970) FRCP(1974) FRCPath(1962)

Alastair Dudgeon was the son of a forceful and successful medical academic. His father, Leonard Stanley Dudgeon, was professor of pathology and dean of St Thomas’ Hospital medical school. His mother, Nora Edith, was the daughter of Sir Richard Orpen.

Alastair was born in London and educated at Repton School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his preclinical studies. The advent of the second world war interrupted his medical studies since, having joined the Territorial Army before going up to Cambridge, he decided to serve as a combatant officer. He had a distinguished army career, especially in the North African campaign where he served as company commander in the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade. He was decorated twice for bravery, being awarded the Military Cross and Bar, and it is notable that on each occasion the award was given for courage in going to the aid of wounded comrades.

He was deeply influenced by his time in the Army, which he probably regarded as the most significant period in his life, and he retained his army links for many years. He served in the Territorial Army until 1962, rising to the rank of colonel in the RAMC, and was awarded the Territorial Decoration with three clasps.

He resumed his medical studies in 1944 and shortly after qualifying he decided to specialize in microbiology. He spent some time carrying out virological studies at the National Institute of Medical Research and was then appointed assistant pathologist to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London. In 1960 he was accorded consultant status. He ran a very effective microbiology service for many years until he retired in 1981.

The department was active in research, especially in the testing of vaccines. Following the development of rubella vaccine in the late 1960s there was concern that the vaccine virus might be transmitted from person to person and that, if unvaccinated pregnant women were infected in this way, the introduction of the vaccine might result in an increase in the rate of infants with congenital rubella. Alastair had the original idea to test the vaccine in closed religious communities where the women vaccinated would be in close contact with unvaccinated women not at the risk of pregnancy.

He approached the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Ramsay, and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Heenan, and secured their cooperation. The observations thus made on women living in convents laid the basis for subsequent safe administration of the rubella vaccine with a very significant reduction of congenital infections.

At Great Ormond Street, at the Institute of Child Health, and in the wider world of medical politics and charitable organizations, Alastair was ‘a committee man’ in the best sense of the term. He served as chairman of the hospital building committee and of the medical advisory committee. He was dean of the Institute of Child Health from 1974-81 and was chairman of the research committees of Action Research, and of the British Heart Foundation. He also served as senior warden and master of the Society of Apothecaries and was a foundation fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists.

He acted as consultant adviser in infectious diseases both to the Department of Health and to the World Health Organization. Business under his chairmanship was conducted briskly; he saw meetings as opportunities for brief discussion and decision approval rather than as debating forums. This worked because preparation beforehand was thorough. His contributions to research and administration received recognition in the award of the Harding medal by Action Research, and the CBE in 1977.

Throughout his life Alastair’s outward manner remained more typical of an Army officer than of a medical academic. He liked to relate that while his son was at medical school he was asked by a friend, who knew his father, whether Alastair actually went to bed in his bowler hat as he seemed to find it so hard to be separated from it during the day. This formal manner masked, not always very successfully, a caring and concerned doctor.

While he was dean, during one of the periodic financial crises that beset academic institutions, he found he would have to make a small number of redundancies. He was deeply upset about this, describing the time as the worst in his life, and he worked all hours to try and identify ways to salvage the financial affairs of the Institute most effectively. Any illness, or personal problems in a colleague, elicited genuine concern and thoughtful comments on the situation. Despite the apparently rigid manner, he was uncritical and tolerant in his judgement of personal relationships although he insisted on very high standards of laboratory practice.

Perhaps Alastair’s most striking characteristic was his manifest integrity. He was a straightforward, honest man who retained a modest view of his own abilities, despite his considerable achievements. He married twice; his first wife, Patricia née Ashton, died in 1969. They had two sons, Peter and Timothy; Timothy works as a general practitioner in Devon. In 1974 he married again, to Joyce Tibbetts. His family life was always important to him although he spoke little about it to his colleagues. Outside his professional life and the Territorial Army, his interests lay in sailing, shooting, and the history of medicine.

P J Graham

[Brit.med.J., 1969,299,1158; The Times, 16 Oct 1989; The Independent, 18 Oct 1989; Brit.med.J.1973,III,183]

(Volume IX, page 137)

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