Lives of the fellows

Richard William Parnell

b.2 October 1911 d.26 December 1985
MRCS LRCP(1936) MA BM BCh Oxon(1939) MRCP(1941) DM(1951) FRCP(1969)

Richard (Dick) Parnell was born in Rugby and educated as a day boy at Rugby School. He was a cricketer and played in the Rugby School XI at Lord’s. His father was a farmer at West Haddon, near Rugby, as had been his father’s forbears for several centuries; his mother was the daughter of the professional cricket coach at Rugby School, who had himself played for England. At the age of 29, Dick Parnell married his first cousin, Dorothy Parnell, daughter of a plant geneticist who spent his working life in India and Africa.

From Rugby, Dick went to St John’s College, Oxford, and hence to the London Hospital where between 1936-39 he held a succession of junior posts including those of house physician to Donald Hunter [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.288], and to the cardiac department under Sir John Parkinson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.443]. In 1940 he was admissions officer at the North Middlesex County Hospital, arranging the admission of no less than 9,000 patients. There followed a year as registrar at the Westminster Hospital before he joined the RAF. In the last two years of his war service he was medical specialist in a mobile field hospital in India and Burma. He successfully applied new methods he had devised to promote healing of indolent leg ulcers, a very common problem in servicemen in the Far East at that time. Men were nursed in hammocks, the ulcers exposed and air funnelled towards the lesions to dry them, and to counteract the effects of humidity.

On return to civilian life Dick continued to work among young people as physician in charge of a recently formed student health service at the Institute of Social Medicine in Oxford. He became a pioneer in the field and was particularly interested in W H Sheldon’s work on somatometry, [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.531], later Sir Wilfrid. He applied this initially to Oxford undergraduates, and later worked at the Warneford Hospital on a Nuffield research grant followed by support from the Medical Research Council. He made original observations on the constitutional aspects of psychology and of psychiatric medicine. The title of his DM thesis was ‘The health of undergraduates’, and the book which embodied his later observations was entitled Behaviour and physique: an introduction to practical and applied somatometry, London, Edward Arnold, 1958. He was intrigued by the possibility of using precise physical measurements to help in the assessment of the mental and emotional capabilities and susceptibilities of individuals.

At the age of 52, after many years of research in essentially unrelated fields, he became a senior registrar in geriatric medicine at Cowley Road Hospital, Oxford, and he was soon appointed as physician in geriatrics in North Birmingham, working mainly at Highcroft Hospital and at Good Hope General Hospital - a new district hospital, the building of which had recently started in Sutton Coldfield. For 12 years, until his retirement, he worked solo as the only geriatrician for a large population with charge of about 550 beds. He set himself a formidable task in providing the services to the district of ‘A compleat geriatrician’, the title of his contribution to the inaugural meeting of the West Midland Institute of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology in 1972. In combining psychogeriatric and geriatric work, at a time when further consultant support was not forthcoming, he provided an excellent service, but it was a pattern of work which could not be sustained or emulated in the long term by a single individual working alone.

Dick Parnell retired with a sense of relief, tinged with some disappointment that he had remained a voice in the wilderness, with only limited recognition by others of the demographic trends and portents concerning the number and needs of old people. Adopting the traditional attitude of a farmer to the weather, he was both philosophical and mildly pessimistic, but never daunted by the tasks which confronted him. His manner was one of gentleness and charm. In addition, he possessed a streak of doggedness and determination which was so necessary for him not only to sustain a very high order of local commitment but also to enable him to communicate nationally on organizational issues in geriatric and psychogeriatric medicine.

In his retirement he found enjoyment in gardening, fly fishing, and travels with a caravan. He loved watching cricket and coached his grandson in bowling offbreaks. He also continued his exposition begun in Behaviour and physique... with a second book, Family physique and fortune: a study in multifactoral inheritance, Sutton Coldfield, 1984, in which he applied the principles of somatotyping to family structure and family life.

DD Gibbs

[Brit.med.J., 1986,292,904]

(Volume VIII, page 366)

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