Lives of the fellows

George Henry Newns

b.27 July 1908 d.20 January 1985
MB BS Lond(1931) MRCP(1932) MD(1933) FRCP(1951)

George Newns was born in Dartford, Kent. His father died when he was eleven years old and his early life was spent in circumstances that were financially difficult, although his mother later married again. He was educated at Whitgift School, Croydon, and then went as a medical student to King’s College, though when a boy he had ideas of becoming a missionary.

He graduated in 1931 and a year later obtained membership of the College, and within two years his MD at the age of 25, a truly remarkably feat that indicated his high intelligence and his capacity for sustained hard work; a capacity he retained throughout his life. He became registrar at the Royal Northern Hospital and then in the children's department at King’s College Hospital. In 1935 he was appointed to the post which nowadays seems such a curious one: medical registrar and pathologist at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. It was about this time that the walking tour in Norway took place, with R A McCance, later professor of experimental medicine at Cambridge, about which many probably mythical stories used to be told. Walking, usually in the Yorkshire dales, remained an abiding pleasure for him, and the Lake District, the Italian Alps and, of course, his wife Deirdre’s home country of Tipperary and Connemara were the scene of many holidays. For all that, he liked to claim that his idea of a perfect holiday was an hotel with a first class cuisine, where he could lie on his bed on his own with the windows of his room wide open.

In 1946 he was appointed consultant paediatrician to Barnet Hospital and in the same year to the consultant staff of the Hospital for Sick Children, where he remained until his retirement in 1973. He became dean of the Institute of Child Health in 1949 and played a major part in the development of the Institute buildings in Guilford street. It was he who emphasized the importance of a first rate lecture theatre with really comfortable seats, seeing no reason why it should be less comfortable than a cinema; he succeeded in obtaining a grant from the Marks-Kennedy Trust to finance this. His relationship with the professor of child health, Alan Moncrieff, later Sir Alan, [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.343] was excellent, both going their own way and rarely meeting but both having similar radical attitudes and rarely disagreeing. In earlier days, George Newns’ radical feelings made him one of a small group at Ormond Street who were unhappy with the very conservative attitudes of most of the then board of governors and senior consultant staff of the hospital, and the group met regularly for a while to plan changes, most of which never came about. Later he supported Alan Moncrieff enthusiastically in the introduction of daily, and then free, visiting by parents in place of the old Sunday afternoon ritual; he was among the first to encourage mothers to stay in hospital day and night with their sick child.

His training and experience were essentially in general paediatrics but he early saw the need for specialization and he recognized the importance of endocrinology in paediatrics. With his capacity for hard work he soon learned what was then a new discipline, and rapidly developed one of the first major clinics for paediatric endocrinology in Britain, himself becoming a member of the European Society of Paediatric Endocrinology.

It was after the retirement of Moncrieff in 1964 that Newns was able to emerge as a dean with administrative skill and a tough approach in committee when he wished to get a decision through, or an appointment made which he wanted. Yet on other occasons he would quietly back away from a matter which seemed to require his decision. He was a good and hard-working dean; his postgraduate students admired and respected him, and indeed many formed a long lasting friendship with him. He listened patiently to their problems, and helped many of them to achieve progress in their own countries.

His listed publications number 77, starting in 1935 with ‘Portal cirrhosis in a child’ and ranging through all the usual preoccupations of a children’s physician of the ’40s and ’50s until 1962. He then reported on ‘A human intersex with xx/xxy/xxyy chromosomes’ with Martin Bodian and two others, and from then on most of his publications concerned endocrine disorders. He also got on very well with the redoubtable Donald Paterson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.365] and edited the 10th edition of Paterson’s Modem Methods of feeding in infancy and childhood, London, Constable & Co., 1955.

His secretaries and nursing staff were very fond of him in spite of, or perhaps because of his impatience and violent tempers that were over as quickly as they erupted. One of his secretaries writes that working for him was quite unlike working for anyone else, and never dull, with sudden explosions of laughter and outrageous asides. He had a favourite ‘O&S’ file into which went all correspondence which bored him. Needless to say, he was an equally impatient and unpredictable driver of a car.

In most respects he disliked change and over many years had his hair cut at the same time in the same place; when in the Institute he had an unvarying lunch of ham sandwiches, two jam doughnuts and Lincoln biscuits, with a pot of strong tea.

George was a kind and generous man who, with his friend and colleague, the surgeon George McNab, and Gordon Piller - then secretary to the Institute of Child Health - formed the Trust which, with the aid of gifts from colleagues and friends, provided for the education of the children of Martin Bodian after the death of that remarkable man, morbid anatomist to the Hospital for Sick Children.

George was a great reader, mostly of non-fiction, and was passionately fond of music and painting, and with a special liking for the Romanesque churches of southern Europe.

After his retirement, and until 1984, he remained chairman of the Leukaemia Research Fund to which he had beeen elected in 1963, having been chairman of the medical scientific and research panel from 1962-73. He was president of the paediatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine 1966-67; paediatric consultant to the Army from 1966-67, and from 1962-74 to the Navy.

He was a very private person; few of his colleagues knew him well and he kept his hospital life quite apart from his home life. His family consisted of a son and a daughter, and his wife Deirdre who respected and loved him dearly. She was a Roman Catholic as, eventually, was George himself.

The impression he gave to those who knew him for the first time, after his retirement, was radically different from the terse, turbulent and impatient man of earlier years. Perhaps, when the strain of work and responsibility was lifted, another character was able to emerge and they saw a quiet, gentle, scholarly and thoughtful elderly physician.

AP Norman

[Brit.med.J., 1985,290,561; Lancet, 1985,1,293]

(Volume VIII, page 359)

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