Lives of the fellows

Ronald Alfred Henson

b.4 October 1915 d.1 December 1994
MRCS LRCP(1940) MB BS Lond(1942) MD (1946) MRCP(1947) FRCP(1953)

Ronald Henson was bred at the London Hospital, moulded by George Riddoch [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.600] and Russell Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60] as their registrar, and polished by the neurological and neurosurgical glitterati gathered at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, during the Second World War. He was educated at King Edward VI’s School at Bath and joined the London Hospital Medical College in 1935 to study medicine. At the onset of war he held temporary house appointments in the emergency medical service in the East End before joining the Oxford Head Injuries Centre. He returned to the London Hospital as medical first assistant in 1947 and, when George Riddoch died prematurely, he was appointed to the consultant staff, in spite of being turned down the previous week for a house physician (registrar grade) appointment at the National Hospital, Queen Square.

The London always had a plethora of patients, hence it produced efficient and quick working doctors with little time for prolix conferences. Ronald was also meticulous about keeping his NHS commitments, a tradition stemming from Lord Knutsford, the pre-1948 house governor, who demanded a personal explanation if a consultant failed to conduct his out-patient clinic.

A firm basis for neurological practice relies on a sound grounding in general medicine. For ten years after his consultant appointment, Ronald was still doing a weekly general medical out-patient clinic. His undergraduate teaching, modelled on Riddoch’s techniques, was rigorous, but elevating and much appreciated. He made a particular study of the neurological complications of cancer. Distinguishing organic from psychogenic was Ronald’s forte, hence his opinion was often sought in medico-legal work. As an expert witness he partially realized a youthful desire to become a barrister.

He was a keen member of the MCC and memorized the scores in Wisden. His interest in students led to his presidency of the Medical College’s rugby club and music society. In fact, the first symptoms of his own poliomyelitis began on the way home from a hospital rugger match. From his illness, which gave rise to a severe bulbar palsy and shoulder weakness, he learnt about cramps and fasciculations, the importance of a comfortable mattress, nursing of poliomyelitis (which he felt should be a specialty) and the qualities of a good physiotherapist, but above all he re-assessed his attitude to patients: "Doctoring will never be quite the same again" was the conclusion of a personal paper in the Lancet [1953,1,1196-1197].

His devotion to music was responsible for marrying Frances - they fell in love playing piano duets. Later he became chairman of the London Bach Society (Frances sang in the choir) and chairman of the Cheltenham International Music Festival and his musical knowledge was greatly valued when he was a serving member of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He was an honorary consultant to the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain and contributed three chapters to Music and the brain: studies in the neurology of music, a book he edited with Macdonald Critchley (Springfield, Illinois, C C Thomas). He was also deputy editor of Brain for eight years. He was a model chairman, curtailing verbiage, completing agendas with speed and efficiency. In due course he became president of the Association of British Neurologists and the neurological section of the Royal Society of Medicine, illustrating his presidential address with recorded musical illustrations.

One had to know Ronald very well before realizing his deep religious convictions. As a junior consultant he served on the Archbishop’s Commission on the Church’s Ministry of Healing (1953 to 1957), for a time he was a Sunday school teacher and later an elder of the United Reformed Church. Thus he was enabled to bear the death of his youngest daughter, which affected him profoundly, without external remorse or self pity. His religious beliefs and practice were reflected in his happy marriage, two daughters becoming physicians in general practice and the third a professional musician.

J N Blau

[Brit.med.J., 1995,310,1528-9; Times, 3 Jan 1995]

(Volume X, page 211)

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