Lives of the fellows

Eric Denholm (Sir) Pridie

b.10 January 1896 d.3 September 1978
KCMG(1953) CMG(1941) DSO(1918) OBE(1931) MRCS LRCP(1922) MB BS Lond(1923) FRCP*(1958)†

Eric Pridie was born at Chingford, Essex, the son of John Francis Pridie and of Florence (née Gilbertson). His father was then in medical practice there, though not long afterwards he moved to a practice in Liverpool. Eric Pridie went to Holmwood Preparatory School, Formby, and then to St Bees School, Cumberland. The first world war broke out shortly after he had begun his medical training. He volunteered for service and was very soon commissioned in the 6th and 7th Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, in which he reached the rank of captain. He served in the front line in France in 1915-1916 and was wounded at Loos. He was later invalided to England with severe pneumonia. After recovery he was trained as a bombing officer and, in 1917, went out to Mesopotamia. In the Mediterranean the ship on which he was travelling was torpedoed and sunk, but after a time in the water he was rescued. To the end of his life he kept the watch he had then been wearing, and which had stopped just after his entry into the water.

Although he had already distinguished himself in action by being mentioned in despatches, it was in Mesopotamia that his greatest war time activities took place. In the fierce fighting at the Battle of Kut, he led a party attacking the enemy lines and at close quarters killed with his revolver some six of the enemy. For his part in this action he was awarded the DSO in 1918.

He was demobilized in 1919 and resumed his medical studies at Liverpool. He qualified first with the conjoint diploma and then MB, BS of the University of London. After house appointments at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, he joined the Sudan Medical Service in 1924. He worked, first, as a medical officer in the Kassala and Blue Nile Provinces, but in 1930 was promoted to be assistant director of medical services. In 1933, at the early age of 37, he became director of the Service and remained so until 1945.

Pridie’s 12 years as director of the Sudan Medical Service are remembered particularly for the increasing Sudanization which he encouraged, often in the face of considerable resistance. In peace, as in war, he was a fearless fighter for what he thought to be right. Very many Sudanese were to become grateful to him for his support and help in their careers. The Kitchener School of Medicine, Khartoum, had only been in existence for nine years when Pridie became director and by virtue of his office he became chairman of the School Council. He took a very active interest in its affairs and fostered its growth at every opportunity. He was also particularly keen that the standards of training there should be comparable with those in Britain, and in 1938, largely through his efforts, the qualifying examination of the school was approved by the Conjoint Board, England. Since that time a senior examiner from the Board has regularly participated in the final examination at Khartoum, and the high standard of Khartoum graduates has been testified by their innumerable successes in postgraduate examinations. In 1934 he became a member of the Council which advised the Governor-General on all aspects of government in the Sudan.

Pridie’s influence on the Council was great and was not limited to medical matters. He foresaw that war was likely to break out in 1939, and ensured that all preparations possible in the Sudan were made; in particular he made certain that large stocks of medical and other supplies were built up, and these proved to be invaluable when war was declared.

Throughout his period as director he made frequent visits to peripheral hospitals and units. He enjoyed being with his staff and his visits were greatly appreciated. These visits were not without their humourous incidents and the story is told by a reliable informant that on one occasion when Pridie went by river steamer to visit a hospital he was disappointed on disembarking to find that there was no one to meet him. His wait at the jetty however was made interesting by the sight of a chimpanzee riding a bicycle. His astonishment was increased when the chimpanzee approached him and gave him a letter. The letter was from the local medical officer and explained that he was unable to be present because he had been called upon to perform an emergency operation. The next day, Pridie on his tour of the hospital noticed a bed in which there seemed to be two occupants, but the bedclothes were covering their heads. Attempts to get him to walk past this bed were unavailing. The story then came out that the medical officer who had trained the chimpanzee to perform a variety of useful tasks rewarded the animal and its mate with alcoholic beverages, and the effects of this reward were now being slept off.

During the 1939-1945 war Pridie became DDMS of the military command in the Sudan and held the rank of brigadier. The degree of integration of the civil and military medical services which he was able to bring about in the East African campaign was of great value in the conduct of the war. Pridie was himself present at the battle of Karen and was twice mentioned in despatches. His knowledge of the region and of its diseases was the basis of much insistent advice which he gave concerning the conduct of the campaign, advice which fortunately was heeded, with the saving of many lives.

In 1945 he was appointed health councillor at the British Embassy in Cairo, and had an important part to play in the many discussions concerning reorganization in the Middle East following the war. This post he retained until 1949 when he was appointed chief medical officer at the Colonial Office. His selection to this post was a remarkable tribute to him, for he had never been a member of the Colonial Medical Service; the Sudan Medical Service, like the Indian Medical Service, was quite outside the Colonial Medical Service.

In the wake of the second world war, morale in the Colonial Medical Service was low. Pridie, very soon, was able to visit the larger territories and to meet their medical officers, and he later managed to visit most territories within the Service. He made a point of trying to rectify grievances and he established himself firmly in the confidence of his staff. His memoranda, like his conversation, were incisive and effective, and some of those on housing in colonial territories, on hospital development and on the preventive aspects of medicine in the Colonies have come to be known as model documents of great value.

After his retirement from the Colonial Office he undertook for the World Health Organization a number of short term consultancies in Turkey, Taiwan, the Philippines and Afghanistan. For a while too he was an adviser to the Government of Bahrein.

For the remaining 15 years or so of his life he was a well known, much loved, cheerful companion to members of the Athanaeum and to his numerous friends in many parts of the word. His travels became legendary; he occupied the greater part of each year with them and took delight in reaching the most remote parts of the world. Just before his eightieth birthday he announced with pride that he had then visited every country in the world; he had set foot on the Antarctic Continent and on the Arctic ice and such remoter places as Tierra del Fuego, Outer Mongolia, Red China, the Falkland Islands and the smallest countries in Central America and Africa. Nearer home he spent much time in Scotland and in Ireland.

During his latter years he was much incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease, but even this did not prevent him from travelling. Six months before his death, I found on arriving at the Sudan Hotel, Khartoum, that he was there making his annual visit to his friends in the Sudan. Most evenings I had a whisky with him sitting on the verandah of the hotel; he always limited himself to one large whisky before dinner,and after dinner would go straight to bed. He spent the morning reading, mostly The Times which he would go to considerable trouble to obtain. I particularly recall visiting the home of his old driver, Taha, then the prosperous owner of a taxi business in Khartoum. There were about ten present and a great spread of delicacies was put before us; the regard in which he was held was manifest in the eyes of all, and as the warm sunlight turned quickly into a starlit Khartoum night there was obvious emotion as he said his farewells, though he himself, with his speedy manner, was able to disguise his feelings.

He will be remembered particularly for his ability as an administrator, his farsightedness, his kindness, his modesty and his regard for his fellow men. Above all, as architect of the modern Sudanese medical service, and as the mentor of innumerable Sudanese physicians, his work will have continuing and far reaching results.

AW Woodruff

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[Brit.med.J., 1978, 2, 839, 1156; Lancet, 1978, 2, 641; Times, 7 Sept 1978]

(Volume VII, page 479)

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