Lives of the fellows

Anthony Clare Fairburn

b.22 September 1927 d.3 October 1988
MB BS Lond(1951) MRCP(1953) DCH(1957) DPM(1960) MRCPsych( 1972) FRCP(1973) FRCPsych(1981)

Tony Fairburn was born in Singapore, where his father was Inspector General of Police. The only child of parents who married late, he passed his early years in the home of his maternal uncle and aunt in Beckenham, and his five cousins were like brothers and sisters. His mother’s family were Buckleys, Catholics from Lancashire, and Tony went to Stoneyhurst; cross-country running took him into the countryside, and he excelled in the school’s OTC.

His clinicals at St Mary’s, and house appointments in London, were followed by nearly three years in the RAMC, mainly in Malaya, where he produced A Handbook of medical Gurkhali and wrote on the antibiotic treatment of leptospirosis in British troops. In Kuala Lumpur he married Margaret Dingwall, in 1954; they had met in Chester and she had been posted to Japan in the QARNS. Their marriage had solid foundations and their five children, and the coming of grandchildren, brought them great joy.

Back in London, Fairburn trained in paediatrics at Great Ormond Street, Queen Charlotte’s, and the Westminster Children’s Hospitals; and in psychiatry at the Maudsley. In 1960 he was appointed senior registrar in paediatrics and child psychiatry at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Sick Children, reading the first UK paper on child abuse in 1963. He took up his consultant appointment in 1965.

His duties included child and family psychiatry in Bath, and mental handicap in both Bristol and Bath. In mental handicap, he was initially responsible for over 300 patients in Hortham Hospital, Bristol, and for hostels in Bath, as well as a consulting and assessment network in neighbouring parts of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire. In time he was joined by other teams: he opened the first residential home outside hospital for Hortham patients and latterly guided their move into the community. He was best known for working closely with his paediatric colleagues at the Royal United Hospital, Bath, where he built up his own department from scratch, and for his innovations in Bath city. He was a pioneer in the West Country of specialized day units for children with communication disorders, the maladjusted, and disturbed and inadequate parents. From 1970 he chaired one of the earliest child abuse monitoring panels. His emphasis was on ease of referral, early intervention, and preventive work with families.

Tony Fairburn was the kindest and gentlest of men. Invariably understanding of parents and superb in his manner with children and adolescents. He was also courageous in forming his opinions and tenacious in acting on them. He incurred odium and condemnation by arguing that exceptional circumstances could justify the statutory removal of babies from their mothers at birth; a national survey some years later showed that his arguments had become accepted by many. His research on removals at birth led to recommendations to the DHSS on the review of the law on child care. He also spoke and wrote on alternative early interventions and preventive measures, and campaigned for the inclusion of preparation for parenthood in the school curriculum for teenagers. He sat on working parties in the two Royal Colleges of which he was a Fellow, as well as the DHSS/DES and had a hand in numerous reports. During 1985-86 he visited Pakistan, through the British Council, and advised on the development of child mental health services there, recommending exchange placements and training, of which he saw the first fruits.

Slight of figure, Tony Fairburn loved the countryside, mountains and rock climbing. At home he was a musician, gardened with pleasure, and did his own tree surgery - duly roped. He went ice-skating several times a week. On holidays he took his family far afield on his narrow-boat, north to Ripon and, on one occasion, on to the Thames tideway, with inches of freeboard to spare. In middle life he left the church of his upbringing and joined no other.

Everyone recognized his influence but few realized its extent. Those in Bristol who valued his qualities knew too little of his achievements in Bath; if he were chairing a group of Wessex child psychiatrists, as like as not he would be convening a similar group in the south western region. He trained doctors in psychiatry, paediatrics and general practice but also taught students of many other professions. He supported voluntary organizations and had a regular ‘spot’ on local radio. People could remark on his absences, being unaware that he was up in London or Pakistan.

Tony Fairburn remained modest, enthusiastic and alert, welcoming newcomers, hopeful amidst change, and always moving forward. He never ceased to enjoy his work and looked forward to a third visit to Pakistan. He had a warning attack at Easter, 1988, but resumed his usual activities and appeared to be fully recovered. He died suddenly in Bath.

ID Chisholm

[Psych. Bulletin, 1989,13,104]

(Volume VIII, page 148)

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