Lives of the fellows

Alan Ernest Alfred Read

b.15 November 1926 d.24 October 1993
CBE(1989) MRCS LRCP(1950) MB BS Lond(1950) MD(1952) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1965)

Alan Read rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most honoured medical men of his generation. He was born in Fulham, London. His mother Annie Lydia née Cook, a butcher’s daughter, worked as a secretary and his father Ernest Arthur Read was an office worker with the telephone company; the family home was a semi-detached house in the west London suburb of Wembley. Alan was educated at Wembley County School and St Mary’s Hospital medical school, winning several prizes and the reward of house officer appointments at his teaching hospital. A year later he obtained both the MD and his membership of the College. After National Service with the Army as a medical specialist in Trieste, 1952-54, he became medical registrar at the Central Middlesex Hospital. There, in F Avery-Jones’ unit, later Sir Francis, he discovered his love of gastroenterology. Moving on to the Hammersmith Hospital he worked first for Sheila Sherlock, from whom he acquired his lifelong research interest in the liver and its diseases, and then with C C Booth, later Sir Christopher, who enthused him with the mysteries of the small intestine.

His appointment in 1960 to the University of Bristol as lecturer -later as Shaw lecturer and reader - and to the United Bristol Hospitals as honorary consultant physician gave him at last the platform he needed to demonstrate his talent for leadership. The department of medicine at Bristol Royal Infirmary was galvanized into activity. Throughout the 1960s it expanded steadily and its reputation spread widely. In 1969, against distinguished opposition, Alan Read was appointed to the chair of medicine in the University of Bristol. From then until his retirement he was the dominant figure in internal medicine in the west of England. He personified the fast fading British tradition of professors of medicine who were clinical polymaths as well as academic leaders. His encyclopaedic knowledge of medicine and his clinical acumen led to his opinion on obscure cases being sought by physicians from all over the region. In the 1970s the academic and entrepreneurial reputation of the Bristol department of medicine was second to none, especially in the field of gastroenterology. This was largely due to Alan Read’s vigorous espousal of fibreoptic endoscopy in its embryonic years. Indeed, his department was the first outside Germany to acquire a purpose built endoscopy unit and to perform retrograde cholangio-pancreatography. At the same time he fostered research into coeliac disease - notably its malignant complications, into bile salt metabolism and into liver disease. He pioneered the use of ultrasonography to measure liver volume and liver blood flow.

Alan did not pretend to be a scientist himself, deputing the laboratory work of his department to colleagues, but he was a shrewd exploiter of scientific techniques for clinical purposes. A major interest was drugs and their metabolism, and one of the disappointments of his life was the failure of clinical pharmacology to grow into a clinical specialty. He often wrote and lectured on drugs and the liver. He was content to let his colleagues work the international conference circuit and concentrated his own efforts first on building up his own department, which came to include rheumatology, dermatology and endocrinology, and then on contributing to the national scene. In the 1980s he became a leading figure in the College, being successively censor, senior censor and vice president. He was also president of the British Society of Gastroenterology in 1980 and of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland in 1983. He served on numerous national committees, including the Committee for the Safety of Medicines and the General Medical Council. All this led, most justly, to the award of the CBE in the New Year Honours List of 1989.

Alan Read was a medical grandee many times over but was always approachable and friendly. He enjoyed high office but delighted in ordinary people. He rarely showed his feelings except in humour; his repartee and droll remarks were legendary and his after dinner speeches memorable. Despite heavy administrative responsibilities he cherished his clinical work and insisted on doing a Saturday morning outpatient session at the Bristol Royal Infirmary long after every other consultant was confined to the standard working week. He expected his colleagues and junior staff to work hard too and if they did they acquired a powerful friend of unbounded loyalty.

Perhaps his greatest gift was teaching, which he did with flair and gusto. Doctors in training flocked to his ward rounds and at times his retinue swelled to 20 people. He also enjoyed writing instructional books and had considerable success with his jointly written undergraduate texts, Modern medicine, which went into three editions and, with J M Naish, The clinical apprentice, Bristol, Wright, 1966, which went into six. Just before he died he published an ultra-concise undergraduate text called Essential medicine, jointly edited with J Vann Jones. As a memorial it had an apt title: to Alan Read medicine was just that - essential. He had little time for anything else, always cheerfully shouldering a hugh burden of work. Latterly he served his university as dean of the faculty of medicine and pro-vice chancellor.

Throughout Alan Read’s time as professor of medicine a stream of overseas undergraduates flowed through his department seeking higher medical training, especially from the Sudan, and a few months before he died the University of Khartoum bestowed on him an honorary doctorate of science. Shortly before, he had obtained much satisfaction from obtaining the Bristol MSc degree for research done in the laboratory with his old friend and colleague, John Clamp. Even after he knew his diagnosis he was talking of expanding this thesis into a PhD, but his retirement was cruelly cut short. Within three months he developed the first symptoms of his brain tumour and a year later he died. Otherwise he would certainly have pursued his interests in boating and fishing, and perhaps spent more time with his saxophone.

He married Enid Malein, daughter of a schoolteacher, in 1952 and they had three children - a son and two daughters. Both daughters are in the nursing profession.

K W Heaton

[Brit.med.J., 1994,308,54; Times, 18 Nov 1993;The Guardian, 12 Nov 1993; The Daily Telegraph, 5 Jan 1994]

(Volume IX, page 440)

<< Back to List