Lives of the fellows

Henry Howarth (Sir) Bashford

b.13 January 1880 d.15 August 1961
Kt(1938) MB BS Lond(1906) MD Lond(1908) MRCS LRCP(1904) MRCP(1934) FRCP(1939)

Henry Bashford was the son of Frederick Bashford, of Northaw, Hertfordshire, and the grandson of Lt. J. Bashford (later postcaptain), R.N., mentioned in the official list of the wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar in which he took part on board the ‘Royal Sovereign’. His maternal grandfather was the Rev. Henry Howarth, rector of St. George’s, Hanover Square, chaplain in ordinary to Queen Victoria. He was educated at Bedford Modern School, which he decided to leave at the age of fifteen for western Canada in order to work on farms and see the world. Letters to his mother from there formed later the basis of two of his short stories.

He returned eighteen months later to finish his examinations, and began his medical studies at the University of London and the London Hospital, from which he qualified. In his undergraduate days he played Rugby for the first fifteen of his hospital and also for the United Hospitals. He had house appointments at the London Hospital, where he made a name for himself for writing humorous poetry and for his general literary skill.

He also did locums, and his observations on general practice in the East End and in Cornwall were to become of equal interest with his pen sketches of fellow students. He used to take three months’ holiday and cycle all over Scotland and England, sometimes working as a farmhand.

In 1907 he entered the medical branch of the General Post Office, which was founded in 1855 and is perhaps the oldest industrial medical service in Great Britain. In 1933 he was appointed its chief medical officer, in charge of the most varied and the largest organisation of its type with more than a quarter of a million men and women, aged from 15 to 60, and with continuous sick absence records from a short time after its inception.

In 1943 he was elected the first medical adviser to the Treasury on the medical aspects of recruitment, environment, and sick absence of the whole of the British Civil Service, and on many of the medical problems which had become the concern of the administration. He soon noticed that the sickness records contained ‘unworked mines of information both for industry and medicine’, and made full use of them; the result was that at the time of his retirement in 1945 he was able to make a vital contribution to the modern concept of industrial medicine.

At the Post Office, up to 1948, the medical work was mainly clinical, consisting of out-patient activities, treatment, and a certain amount of visiting. Other important aspects were pre-employment examinations, the treatment and evaluation of accidents, and long-term follow-up.

Remembering his own sudden growth at the age of 16 he became deeply involved in the statistical study of the physique of young workers and the influence on it of better feeding, housing and care; his study on the improvement of the physique of young people in the twenty-five years before the Second World War is still a classic. He tackled the problem of adolescent albuminuria and succeeded in overcoming the prevalent belief in its ultimate importance. He was also suspicious of the innocent heart murmur of the young. Before his time thousands of working days were lost by unnecessary quarantine rules; he studied the problem and reformed the rules for healthy contacts.

As chief medical officer he had not only about a dozen full time medical officers (men and women) working for him, but also some 2,000 general practitioners all over the country, who acted as local medical officers. Sir Henry remained interested in their work and kept in close contact with them. He was one of the founders of the Association of Industrial Medical Officers (1935) and, later the first editor of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine (1944). He also became a member of the Industrial Health Research Board.

Another of his interests was the St. John’s Ambulance Association, of which he was president of its Post Office Ambulance Centre. He was justly honoured by a knighthood of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and the appointment of Honorary Physician to King George VI (1941-4).

At heart, he remained a clinician. Occupational health, in his opinion, was mainly a clinical subject, not merely a question of paper administration or the domain of the public health man. His policy, which was to attract the man with the M.R.C.P, rather than the man with the D.P.H., has borne fruit.

Bashford was a prolific writer, much of his literary work being coloured by his medical experiences. This is especially true of a delightful volume of letters to imaginary correspondents, entitled The Comer of Harley Street (1911). He wrote several novels, of which the first, The Pilgrim's march, was published in 1920. His interests outside medicine were literature, art, the countryside of Wiltshire, travel, and the company of friends who could appreciate with him old silver, good food and wine and lively conversation.

He married Margaret Eveline, daughter of Ernest Sutton, of Basildon, Berkshire, in 1908; they had one son and three daughters.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1961, 2, 588-9 (p); Lancet, 1961, 2, 496 (p); Times, 16 Aug. 1961.]

(Volume V, page 31)

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