Lives of the fellows

Eric Anthony Barker

b.3 September 1920 d.30 August 1993
CBE(1975) MRCS LRCP(1943) MB ChB Birm(1943) MD(1950) FRCS(1951) MRCP(1977) FRCP(1978)HonPhD Natal SA(1974) Hon LLD Birm(1975)

Anthony Barker was born in Birmingham, the son of a solicitor who worked in local government. He was educated at Mill Hill School and Birmingham University. ‘Holding hands in the dissection room . . . ’ with Maggie Newton led to a marriage and a lifelong partnership of service in which they were never separated, not even in death. Her path was was already set for Africa as a medical missionary, in return for training financed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). Anthony, who could have had a career in academic medicine in this country, asked SPG ‘Would you like two doctors for the price of one?' The war intervened and after their marriage in 1943 Anthony joined the Merchant Navy as a ship’s surgeon. His ship was torpedoed, he survived. He also became an expert carpenter.

In 1945, shortly before the end of hostilities, the Barkers sailed for South Africa as medical missionaries, taking over a dilapidated converted trading shed which served as a hospital, with six beds, at Nqutu in a poverty stricken corner of rural Zululand. Although Anthony was officially the medical superintendent and district surgeon of the hospital, its development was a joint venture with Maggie. From such small beginnings the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, or ‘Charlie J' as they preferred to call it, developed into a unique and flourishing hospital where doctors and nurses were trained, serving 600 beds, eight outreach clinics and long queues of outpatients. In effect it became the district general hospital for a population of 100,000 people. Anthony developed a deep and abiding love for the Zulu people and their land, becoming fluent in their language and trusted ana respected by both the people and their leaders - even by the traditional healers.

The Barkers were no ordinary missionaries. Well aware of the inverse relationship between religious fervour and standards of medicine in the missions, they strove to uphold the latter. Anthony obtained his FRCS, becoming an outstanding general surgeon in the widest sense, complementing Maggie’s work m midwifery, paediatrics and anaesthetics. While prepared to work punishingly long hours to serve his patients, he derived strength from the balance of his marriage, from reading, music, and his faith. Essentially a gregarious man, his zest and respect for life inevitably attracted others to join him in his work. Specialists came to teach and volunteer their skills in exchange for a taste of this strong spiritually based community. Young doctors and medical students were challenged in their priorities and their knowledge.

Anthony's day began at 5.30am when he took tea to Maggie, in bed, before replying to piles of letters in his unique italic hand, followed by morning prayers and ward rounds at 7.00am. A break for breakfast was a riot of music, laughter and local maize porridge shared with his colleagues, while discussing the problems of the night and the schedules for the day. His simple, unpretentious way of living left his mind free and uncluttered, clearly seeing what was right and what was wrong. The South African system of apartheid was destroyed in the hospital by his total resistence to any divisions based on racial grounds, whether it be at table, at work, or in the field of sport. Visitors came to marvel at this amazing and unique racial ‘normality'. Anthony was asked to write and lecture both on medical ‘Reserves'. His speeches were finely chiselled as his wood carvings.

In 1959 his account of their first 15 years in Zululand, The man next to matters and conditions in the so-called me, London, Fontana Books, sold some 90,000 copies. The author and playwright, Nadine Gardiner, said ‘It is one of those personal books in which the voice of the author . . . seems to sound from the page.’ He gave the Malherbe Academic Freedom Lecture in 1970 and the Ghandi Memorial Lecture in 1973. After 27 years the South African government took over the hospital and, true to their principles, the Barkers resigned. They left behind a monument to all that is best in missionary endeavours.

On his return to England in 1975 he was awarded the CBE and received the freedom of the City of Birmingham. He gained his membership of the College in 1977 and was elected a Fellow in 1978. He was appointed a consultant in accident and emergency at St George’s Hospital, London, where Maggie, as a house officer in his department was ‘... unsure whether to call him ’’darling" or ’Sir".’ His enormous breadth of medical experience equipped him well to deal with the wide variety of problems. Junior staff were taught on a sound ‘Charlie J’ basis and his attitudes to time-off, pay and hours of work, caused a stir but predictably won respect from his colleagues. He was appointed sub-dean of the medical school.

Always one to make use of available resources, he rescued teak for his furniture-making as the old St George’s Hospital was demolished. Waste ground beside the new casualty department became a flourishing vegetable garden, tended in brief spare moments. His concern for conservation and respect for the world’s resources led him to be a founder member of the ‘Lifestyle’ movement - living simply that others may simply live. The bicycle was his means of transport; he even left it chained to the railings of august royal scientific and medical societies where he was lecturing.

As in their lives, cycling was a team event: Anthony was the frontman, Maggie the powerhouse behind, as they rode their beloved white tandem. An enormous circle of friends around the country welcomed their visits and responded as they were cajoled to sponsor tens of thousands of miles, ridden tandem, for their favourite charities. They actively supported more than 30. Retirement from the NHS allowed them to return to South Africa in 1986, where his experience as a casualty consultant gave invaluable guidance to the expansion of the Alexandra Township Clinic in Johannesburg. It also gave him time to write a second book, currently being published.

He remained an editor for Tropical doctor and medically examined refugee victims of torture who had fled to the UK. The Zulus aptly called him ‘Mhlek’emhlathini’ - ‘He who laughs in the forest’ - the forest being his beard. Anthony Barker was a man with presence, short in stature, quick in wit and a lively raconteur. Both patients and friends felt ‘better’ when they saw him. Nothing was done by half measures. Active to the last, he died in the saddle of his tandem, his beloved Maggie up behind him, both killed instantly in collision with a lorry as they celebrated their golden wedding - nostalgically retracing their brief wartime honeymoon in the Lake District.

A Howard Mowbray

[Brit.med.J., 1993,307,1138; The Guardian, 4 Sept 1993;The Independent, 13 Sept 1993; The Times, 4 Sept 1993;The Daily Telegraph, 16 Sept 1993]

(Volume IX, page 25)

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