Lives of the fellows

John Howard (Sir) Middlemiss

b.14 May 1916 d.27 April 1983
Kt(1981) CMG(1968) MB BS Dunelm(1940) MD(1947) FFR(1948) MRCP(1964) FFR(RCSI)(1969) FRACR(1971) FACR(1972) FRCP(1972) FRCS(1976) FRCR(1976)

The son of Thomas Middlemiss, a banker, and grandson of Robert Mason, a Member of Parliament, Howard Middlemiss was proud of his Northumbrian origins and of being an alumnus of the University of Durham. While he was an undergraduate he achieved much that was a clear intimation of his future life. He played cricket for the University, and there was hardly a club ground in the whole of Northumbria that was not familiar to him. He showed his enthusiasm for travel by crossing Europe as far as Salzburg to listen to the music of Mozart - on a bicycle that had been constructed specially for him. He was identified by his perceptive contemporaries as the one most likely to succeed in his year. Most important of all he met Mary Pirrie, also a medical undergraduate; they were married soon after he qualified and began a partnership that ensured their own success, and also support for those who needed their help, for more than 40 years.

Almost immediately after he qualified, Howard joined the RAMC and served in Normandy and in India. During this time he gained considerable experience of medicine and of travelling abroad, and realized that he had a flair for administration. After the war he returned to Newcastle and committed himself to a career in radiodiagnosis. Bristol had the foresight to invite him to take on the first major challenge of his professional career, when he was appointed director of radiology in 1949. His outstanding clinical ability, administrative flair, and striking personality were a unique combination that enabled him to attract able colleagues to Bristol, and to inspire them with his own enthusiasm. His department acquired a worldwide reputation for both its clinical work and its teaching. He went out of his way to contact doctors outside his own specialty, and the links that he pioneered with them have become the accepted practice not only in Bristol but universally.

In 1966 he was appointed to a personal chair in the University of Bristol - and at that time there was only one other chair of radiodiagnosis in undergraduate teaching hospitals in the whole kingdom. At least six of his postgraduate students subsequently gained their own chairs in five different continents. His commitment to the University included three successful years as dean of the Faculty of Medicine from 1977 to 1980.

In 1953 Howard had been invited to visit Africa as adviser, and began an unrivalled and unambiguous commitment of heart and mind to the underprivileged in the developing countries. In addition to the clinical work involved, he enjoyed rolling up his sleeves and dismantling equipment in order to repair it; took hazardous journeys to remote outposts; and once flew by helicopter close to the frontline in Vietnam in order to visit a hospital and conduct a ward round in French. Above all he encouraged others to visit centres in East Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, Malaysia and Burma in order to create and sustain a high standard of radiography and radiology. Whole teams of radiographers and radiologists from these countries visited the United Kingdom, usually in Bristol, in order to learn new skills that they could practise in their own environment.

He was in constant demand to travel widely, and made a host of friends wherever he went. Several years ago he received a large number of guests at a reception in London; he did not know in advance who would be there, but recognized each by his full name, and this was not only because he regarded each one as an individual but because he cared generously for the welfare of each one. Conversely, it is a remarkable tribute to his personality that throughout the English-speaking radiological world he could be referred to by his Christian name alone with instant recognition.

Recently he found that one of his friends, a radiographer from Vietnam, had escaped and was in a transit camp with very little hope. He initiated an interest that culminated in the ultimate arrival of his friend in a free country. The delight that he displayed at that time was characteristic of the overt pleasure that he showed in the success of others. He was justifiably and immensely proud of the Companionship of the Order of St Michael and St George that was conferred upon him for his services overseas.

Howard and many of his contemporaries believed passionately in the establishment of a Royal College of Radiologists. He had been involved energetically with its predecessor, the Faculty of Radiologists, for nearly a quarter of a century, and when he became president of the faculty launched a final sustained and successful effort from the platform created by his predecessors. It was one of the happiest days of his life when the Privy Council granted a Supplemental Charter in 1975, and characteristically he was working in the West Indies when he heard the news. He became the first president of the Royal College of Radiologists and filled the office with his own style and dignity. When his turn of office was over he continued the energetic interest he had in international education, and in setting up an examination structure now used in all the European countries.

Hard work and success were their own rewards for Howard, but also he received numerous honours. Fellowships of colleges and international associations were showered upon him, and he was invited to give no less than nine named lectures in this country and abroad. A knighthood was conferred upon him in 1981 for services to radiology, and in 1982 he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal College of Radiologists. This is the highest honour the College can give and it is awarded for outstanding contribution to the development and teaching of radiology. It is given rarely and was richly deserved by this man of fine intellect and liberal outlook.

He travelled far, but always loved to return to his home in Bristol. He and Mary opened it generously to scores of students from the Commonwealth and beyond, and took delight and pleasure in their friendship and success. Even his relaxation was energetic, and in recent years he and Mary had tackled a small neglected woodland nestling in the Malverns. Their first move was to cut bold pathways through it. At this stage they invited their colleagues and their families to visit them there. Howard armed the children with whistles and instructions to blow if they were lost, and then allowed them to roam freely along the paths he had cut. When the deadwood had been cut and carried away, he began to replant it with oak trees, an act that was symbolic of his whole approach to life. His own life fulfilled all the promises that his coevals had predicted. He enriched the life of all who met him. He died in Bristol and was survived by Lady Middlemiss and their son and two daughters.

ER Davies

[, 1983, 286, 1586; Lancet, 1983, 1, 1115-1116; Times, 4 May 1983]

(Volume VII, page 394)

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