Lives of the fellows

Reginald Sterling Francis

b.21 January 1921 d.5 September 1984
MRCS LRCP(1943) MB BS Lond(1943) MRCP(1949) MD(1951) FRCP(1971)

Reg Francis died of a cancer borne privately and with great fortitude for a number of years. Informed of the diagnosis quite early on, he and his wife Pamela reached a brave decision not to let this distort or upset relationships among family and friends, who were accordingly protected from the knowledge until fairly late on. Two decades earlier he had borne the protracted ill effects of a parathyroid tumour, undiagnosed for years, with a similar unassuming patience. He was in this an exception to the rule that doctors make bad patients.

Reg was the youngest child of a Merthyr Tydfil fishmonger and greengrocer who took over the premises of a jeweller called ‘Sterling’; hence Reg’s middle name. He won a place at University College Hospital at a very young age and then set off on a bicycle to France and Germany to spend a year learning the languages. He qualified at the age of 22 and then served in the Navy in Normandy and the Far East as surgeon-lieutenant. After holding junior hospital posts he was appointed consultant physician at Whipps Cross Hospital in 1962. In 1967 he added the duties of director of the North East Thames Region mass X-ray service.

He taught himself the discipline of research. Throughout his professional career he continued to produce original work. He wrote a series of papers on surgery for pulmonary tuberculosis, antibiotics for chronic bronchitis and corticosteroid aerosols for asthma, and he was still at work on this last subject at the time of his death.

Reg was a man of great resource and energy. He brewed his own beer, made his own wine and baked his own bread. A government minister on a consumer affairs ‘phone-in’ was startled by a doctor ringing to ask what he was going to do about grain wholesalers who refused to sell bulk flour to a private citizen. He undertook feats of carpentry and plumbing which were, at times, of heroic Heath Robinson ingenuity. He fitted central heating in his large three-storey house with radiators from scrap yards, ably assisted by his five year old son, putting pipes in place beneath the floor boards, and later built his own swimming pool - during the only April in memory to suffer from an appreciable fall of snow. In an age when the privilege of being a junior hospital doctor did not extend to a living wage he became an adept with a cobbler’s last and a chimneysweep’s brushes. His originality was tempered with economy, but never with parsimony and usually with realism. On one occasion he decided on a plan for savings on dog food for his beloved Norfolk terrier, Packly. He visited the local Home of Rest for Horses and enquired of a military-looking gentleman whether there was ever any horsemeat to be bought cheaply: the reply was in the negative and unprintable. Characteristically he told the story against himself, but it emphasized a principle he lived by and also taught to his family: ‘Always ask questions, people can only say "No".’ He was never afraid of appearing ingenuous in enquiry if something useful could be gained or learned.

He often said that had he not been a doctor he might have been a musician. Much to his wife’s embarrassment he took his trumpet to dances and joined in, playing a fine ‘Stormy Weather’. On the piano he played everything in F sharp, explaining that when he was learning he had found the black notes easiest to pick out. He could whistle a remarkable trill and no one ever worked out how it was done. But his lasting interest lay in the music of Mozart and Schubert.

Reg had an admirable disrespect for authority. It was a point of honour with him always to wear an outrageous red bowtie on his first day in a new job. He was an adept mimic, particularly of his chiefs. And it was entirely in character that when confronted with the College's rather presumptuous biographical details form (now reworded) he struck out the words ‘Preparatory’ and ‘Public’ referring to schooling and replaced them with ‘Elementary’ and ‘Secondary’.

He was always a fervent advocate of the National Health System, although in later years he was never sentimental about it, recognizing its shortcomings and its problems. He served on many committees with much forebearance, and was particularly active in the planned development of Whipps Cross. He maintained an unflagging interest in the evolution of such hospitals and in the medicine practised in them. The Wellcome Museum of Medical Science contains many of the medical antiquities from his large and quixotic collection.

Reg married Pamela Valerie Spratt, daughter of a Lloyds broker, in 1943 and they had five children, two sons and three daughters. They were a very happy family and their hospitality will long be remembered with pleasure by all who were fortunate enough to enjoy it. His wife and children survived him.

PDB Davies
D Francis

[Brit.med.J., 1984,289,1011]

(Volume VIII, page 164)

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