Lives of the fellows

Douglas Montagu Temple Gairdner

b.19 November 1910 d.10 May 1992
MRCS LRCP(1936) BM BCh Oxon(1936) MRCP(1938) DM(1947) FRCP(1952)

Douglas Gairdner was the product of an evangelical Scots family -his father dissipated much zeal and ability trying and failing to convert the Egyptians to Presbyterian Christianity - and of the Dragon School, Gresham’s School Holt, and Trinity College, Oxford. At Gresham’s his contemporaries included the composer Benjamin Britten, the poet Wystan Auden, and the traitorous diplomat Donald Maclean, as well as his great friend and fellow paediatrician Dermod MacCarthy [Munks Roll, Vol.VIII, p.300], son of the critic. At Oxford he initially read chemistry but later swapped to medicine; receiving his clinical training at the Middlesex Hospital, London. As a graduate he worked at Great Ormond Street and the Belle Vue Hospital in New York, before joining the Army at the outbreak of the second world war. In 1940 he married Ann Helen James and they had four daughters.

When the war ended he was recruited as first assistant to Sir James Spence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.386] in Newcastle, then the premier school of children’s medicine in Great Britain. It was there he completed his distinguished MD thesis on Henoch Schönlein purpura. From Newcastle he moved to Cambridge in 1948 as its first NHS consultant in paediatrics, retiring locally in 1975.

While working as a single-handed consultant in Cambridge and Huntingdon, Gairdner was not content to confine himself to clinical medicine, albeit he was conscientious to the point of obsessionality in the exercise of his responsibility to patients. With the backing of his clinical assistant Janet Roscoe and the help of a series of research fellows, he embarked on a number of studies in neonatology at a time when that subject was being developed as perhaps the most rewarding application of basic physiology to patient care.

A founder member of the Neonatal Society, he later became its first clinical president. But his most important contribution to paediatrics was as an editor; first of Recent Advances in Paediatrics and then of Archives of Disease in Childhood, turning the latter into an international journal of repute with its exemplary standards of content and presentation. In acknowledgement of his work he was made one of the few paediatric honorary fellows of the Royal Society of Medicine and was awarded the highest honour of the British Paediatric Association - the James Spence medal, the citation for which described him as a true blue Socialist.

Though essentially a bedside doctor and clinical scientist, he also wrote characteristically iconoclastic papers on ‘the decline and fall of hospital paediatrics’ and ‘the fate of the foreskin’. However, his interests did not extend to so-called ‘community paediatrics’ whose preoccupations he largely ignored.

One of those whom the Gods love - intelligent, gifted, handsome and able - Gairdner died young in his 80s, as disdainful of the infirmities of old age as he was of slipshod work or conduct. Like his friend Dermod MacCarthy, he was a keen amateur musician and a dedicated sailor, undertaking quite long and taxing voyages well into his 70s in his boat Lal.

A tragedy that marred his personal life was the accidental death of the youngest of his four daughters, killed by a lorry at the age of 11, but he bore it with the Roman fortitude that characterized men of his age and class. Despite or because of his evangelical upbringing he was not a religious man and his death - he was a member of the Euthanasia Society - was a piece with his life. Outwardly offhand, inwardly diffident, he could not conceal from his many friends and disciples a warm heart and a capacity for kindly concern, but he was not an easy man to know well.

An amusing and discerning companion, he was no respecter of conventions or status. He would turn up at scientific meetings, for instance, in a yachting cap with a satchel for luggage. Douglas Gairdner was a good example of a certain kind of civilized, mildly eccentric Englishman whose breed has died out with his generation. The medicine of childhood in the UK would have been different and worse had he not devoted his professional life to it.

J A Davis

[Brit.med.J..1992,304,1438; The Times, 13 May 1992;The Independent, 9 June 1992 and 20 Apr 1993;The Guardian, 1 June 1992;The Daily Telegraph, 26 May 1992]

(Volume IX, page 186)

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