Lives of the fellows

Alexander Stephenson Hall

b.2 June 1904 d.19 May 1995
MRCS LRCP(1929) MB Bchir Cantab(1931) MRCP(1931) FRCP(1952)

Stephen Hall was a gentle physician of enquiring mind, wide reading, well-tempered enthusiasm and firm character. He chuckled frequently. When he said "...but, dear boy..." his voice was entirely affectionate and wholly unpatronising. His father was a general practitioner by the river Trent. There was affection and respect within the family and Stephen recalled the overt emotion shown by his father when his qualification was announced. The vocation to medicine was not however sudden. He went to Bishops Stortford College, where the family had strong links, and he was head prefect, captain of cricket, rugby and athletics and heavyweight boxing champion. During these years he would accompany his father on his rounds and came to choose medicine.

He went on to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. There he was on the editorial board of Granta and gained a blue for water polo. Meanwhile, he developed such prowess at rugby as to approach trials for the University team. Then disaster struck - while climbing competitively on farm buildings he fell and fractured his femur.

From Cambridge he went to St George’s Hospital, with an exhibition, for clinical training. His recollections of that period included the ‘God-like’ status of the consultant staff and the formalities of attire. Spats were commonly worn and he was himself sent home on a Saturday morning for being too casually dressed. There might be as few as two students on a firm, so much was learned. But life was dangerous for the students and several died of bacterial infections in those days before antibiotics. With such limited therapeutic possibilities his sense of ‘caring’ became well developed.

Upon qualifying, he thought first about paediatrics and served a year at Tite Street. He valued this experience highly, but the next phase was a year as a registrar at the ill-fated Royal Chest Hospital in City Road. This was a highly specialized unit. X-ray examinations were by now established and new techniques, such as bronchography, were being highly developed. He was taught by Norah Schuster, a pioneer in sputum cytology (bronchial carcinoma was then relatively uncommon). He also served a year as a medical registrar at Charing Cross Hospital.

In the 1930s the Middlesex County Council were remarkably active in the cause of medical services, and Stephen witnessed the building of Harefield Sanatorium (later Hospital). He recalled the enthusiastic support of their medical staff, which he joined, in the seemingly modest post of tuberculosis officer. He came to feel that a future National Health Service might well be based on local authorities, but later realized that not all bodies were so enlightened. Politically he was a ‘sentimental socialist’ and a member of the Fabian Society. He had been actively supportive of the coalminers in the strike of the 1920s and even considered standing for Parliament, but moved away from the left when he felt that the worst social injustices had been removed.

Attending a meeting of the British Tuberculosis Association, he lost patience with the dilatoriness of the committee and proposed a motion of no confidence in the chairman. This startled the committee, but was not passed. Nevertheless, he soon became the secretary and edited their journal Tubercle.

In 1947 he was appointed as a consultant chest physician, with special concern for the control and treatment of tuberculosis, to the Aylesbury group of hospitals, in collaboration with the Buckinghamshire County Council. He had an excellent working relationship with the county medical officer of health and headed a successful team working both in clinics and in the community. In later years he often recalled the astonishing change in outlook brought about by chemotherapy and antibiotics.

He retired in 1969 but for a few years did locums on geriatric wards in Stoke Mandeville and in Merthyr Tydfil. It was during this time that he started his hobby of mosaic making. The autumn of 1971 saw him at the age of 67 attending a course at Ravenna University, having driven himself there in a very sporting coupe motorcar, which he described as "an old man s folly".

His family were a great part of his life. In 1937 he married the much loved Mary, also a doctor. They had three children. Mary sadly died prematurely in 1975. In 1977 he married Rhona, a first cousin whom he had known since childhood.

In 1958 he had acquired the tenancy of Boarstall tower, the gatehouse and the only remaining part of a medieval fortified manor. Set in a wide garden and within a moat this was the scene of famous hospitality and entertainment. The family performed chamber concerts in the great upper room, many musicians visited and there were many musical evenings, usually in support of good causes. The garden prospered with the planting of trees and the introduction of peacocks to the lawn and waterfowl to the moat. This was also the arena for village fêtes and music camps for children. Young artists were encouraged and Stephens own creativity was later expressed by his mosaics. His subjects were both original and derivative, some religious, some allegorical, some purely decorative. Their quality was recognized in 1983 by the award of the Baron de Lancey art prize of the Royal Society of Medicine for furthering the links between art and medicine. For some years he worked tirelessly as a lay reader.

Stephen had his own experience of illness, besides the old broken thigh. He suffered at least three major abdominal operations, two of which were followed by serious complications, and latterly the removal of a large pharyngeal pouch. He was increasingly frail, disabled by osteo-arthritis and suffered visual loss which curtailed his reading. He used to travel the garden in an electric mini-chariot, watching his trees grow and reflecting that his lifetime had spanned greater progress in medical practice than had been made in all previous human history. He died quietly aged 90 and alert in mind to the end.

W B Armstrong

[Brit.med.J., 1995,311,1295]

(Volume X, page 183)

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