Lives of the fellows

Sydney Augustine Propert

b.6 April 1909 d.21 August 1985
BA Cantab(1930) MRCS LRCP(1933) MA MB BChir(1934) MRCP(1935) FRCP(1951)

Sydney Propert was born in London, the son of the Revd Peregrine Sydney Goldwin Propert, vicar of St Augustine, Fulham, and his wife Rose Ethel, née White. Peregrine Propert was also a prebendary of St Paul’s, and one time president of the Poor Law Association of England and Wales. The Propert family originally came from the St David’s area of Wales. Sydney was quite proud of his Welsh origins and loved to spend his holidays on the west coast of Wales.

He was educated at St Paul’s School and later at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, going on to St Thomas’s Hospital for his clinical training. Soon after qualification he obtained his membership of the College, at the youthful age of 26; he was elected a Fellow in 1951.

His first post was in 1933, as clinical assistant in the children’s department at St Thomas’s Hospital, followed by a house physician appointment at the Tite Street Children’s Hospital. He was subsequently casualty officer and resident anaesthetist, house physician, medical registrar and tutor at St Thomas’s. During this time he was working under R J Tewkesbury, Douglas Firth [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.569],J S C Elkington [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.116], and in particular Sir Maurice Cassidy [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.528].

In September 1936, following the death of Sydney Curl [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.558], the honorary physician at the Essex County Hospital, Colchester, and at the instigation of his friend of St Thomas’s days, Ronnie Reid, FRCS, - recently arrived there as honorary surgeon - Sydney applied for and obtained the post of honorary physician at Colchester. He was 27 years old at the time, a remarkably young age to hold such a post. He retained this position until the coming of the NHS when, although not enthusiastic about the change from the voluntary system, he became a consultant physician, a post he held until he retired in 1974.

The original appointment was most welcome; an able, active, intelligent young man was a great asset to the hospital and the town, particularly following Curl who, while being a good clinical doctor, was a most eccentric man, fearful of infection, aloof and apparently humourless. Sydney was immediately and subsequently a very busy man, with honorary appointments at the Royal Eastern Counties Hospital, Severalls Mental Hospital, Halstead Hospital, Courtauld Hospital Braintree, St Leonard’s Hospital Sudbury, Clacton & District Hospital and Harwich & Dovercourt Hospital. Until the second world war there was no pathologist for these hospitals, and only one laboratory was staffed. This was at Severalls Hospital, where there was a technician and a boy. Sydney acted as pathologist at the Essex County Hospital; here a room was set aside as a laboratory, where relatively simple tests were done by him, anything more difficult being sent to the Clinical Research Laboratory in London or else picked up by the ‘boy’ from the Severalls laboratory - who came on a bicycle and took the specimen back to Severalls for the technician to handle. His heavy load was somewhat lightened by the arrival of A B Pollard (q.v.) in 1952.

Sydney Propert, with his natural intelligence and his great experience, became a thoroughly sound physician - with that something extra that some call ‘sixth sense’. He had very shrewd clinical judgement and made very few mistakes, but he was ‘of the old school’ and did not change too readily with modern advances. He kept in close touch with his teacher and mentor, Sir Maurice Cassidy, whose niece he married. It is therefore not surprising that Sir Maurice paid regular visits to Colchester, the high spots of which were joint ward rounds. With or without Sir Maurice, it was always a pleasure to be in such a stimulating clinical atmosphere where the diagnoses were thoroughly and coolly considered, and where the patients were properly treated both medically and as human beings. Sydney was a gentleman, in the proper sense of the word, always courteous and tolerant, and his patients and staff loved him dearly. He was among the best physicians the writer has known.

He was not by nature a research worker, lacking the bent for it and that tenacity of purpose which carries one on after the initial enthusiasm has burned low, but he did make one very important medical observation: in 1938 he was the first to describe the relationship between injections of blood or its products and the development of hepatitis in the recipients (British Medical Journal 1938,ii,677). He studied an outbreak of severe jaundice with some deaths, affecting about 10 people in a mental subnormality institution, and found by dint of careful questioning that they had all received an injection of convalescent measles serum two or three months previously. The demonstration of this relationship in the causation of disease was of prime medical importance.

As a man and a friend he was always loyal, tolerant and trustworthy. He was a very private person, reticent about matters that concerned him deeply and personally. He did not, as the saying goes, ‘wear his heart on his sleeve’ and one could not have guessed at the deep personal sorrows he had. However, if one had the honour to be admitted to the inner circle of his mind, one found a man of tremendous courage and high intellect and creativity, but with a sensitive nature which could be easily hurt. Fortunately there was present too a wonderful sense of humour and wit. He was a fine raconteur and public speaker, with a marvellous twisted grin and manner of speech that was quite endearing. He was not really interested in sports, although in his youth he did some rowing. He was in the St Thomas’s four, which one year won the inter-hospital races. His leisure was spent in pursuits of a more intellectual kind; writing poems or short stories of delicacy and wit, although some were of a satirical nature. It would be a fitting memorial to him to have his better writings published as a book.

In 1938 he married Ethel Margaret (Peggy) Gow who, as mentioned previously, was Sir Maurice Cassidy’s niece. Her father was Andrew Gow RA, one time Keeper of the Royal Academy, and an aunt was Mary Gow RI, another distinguished artist. It was a happy marriage, apart from the premature deaths of two of their four children. Their first home was in Lexden Road, Colchester, and when he retired they converted Crockleford Mill, Colchester, into a beautiful home. Sydney died there, leaving a widow, a son, a daughter, and seven grandchildren.

On April 6, 1987, his old friends, many of whom had been taught by him at various stages of their careers, met in the library of the postgraduate medical centre at his old hospital, the Essex County, Colchester, to unveil a picture and plaque to his memory. It was a gesture of remembrance to a well loved physician.

JB Penfold

(Volume VIII, page 393)

<< Back to List