Lives of the fellows

Charles Allan Birch

b.30 April 1903 d.20 September 1983
MB ChB Liverp(1925) MRCS LRCP(1925) MD(1928) DPH(1928) MMSA(1929) MRCP(1930) DCH(1935) FRCP(1945)

Allan Birch, son of a Wigan clothing manufacturer, was educated first at the Wesleyan School, and then at Wigan Grammar, from where he won the Sir Francis Sharpe Powell scholarship to the University of Liverpool. There he gained medals in physiology, pathology, and clinical medicine, and qualified with first class honours. After resident posts at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary and the Maternity Hospital, he became senior medical tutor and registrar at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, and at the same time was elected honorary assistant physician to the Royal Albert Edward Infirmary, Wigan.

In 1932 he was awarded a Dorothy Temple Cross travelling fellowship, and for twelve months studied tuberculosis at Sea View Hospital, Staten Island, New York, and at the Royal Victoria, Montreal. Allan enjoyed taking exams, as his long list of qualifications shows, and while in America he came first out of hundreds in the diploma of the National Board of Medical Examiners of the USA. It was whilst he was in America that he met and married Marjorie Bold, an artist, also there on a fellowship.

Returning to Liverpool, he found that no vacancies in the honorary staff were expected for some years, and since great developments were promised in the Middlesex County Hospital Medical Service, he secured the first appointment of staff physician, attached to the North Middlesex County Hospital. Here at first virtually single-handed, he had to deal with such a wide range of acute illness, that Hamilton Bailey, his friend and teacher, urged him to write a book on emergency medicine; but this had to wait for some years.

On the outbreak of war Allan and two surgical colleagues were seconded to Chase Farm and rapidly transformed the old orphanage buildings into an Emergency Medical Service (Sector 2) Hospital linked with the London Hospital. He wrote later ‘Whilst there were excellent dormitories and kitchens there was no equipment, so 50 gallon water tanks were converted into sterilisers, biscuit tins made into dressing drums and cow troughs into bedpan washers. The bakehouse became the dispensary. The hospital was functioning completely 10 weeks after war started, with 600 beds, and after one incident dealt with 350 casualties in the space of three days’.

In his spare time he ‘dug for victory’ in the allotments between the wards and his son remembers helping him turn an occasional anti-aircraft shell on a lathe in the hospital workshop which was given over to the war effort. After succeeding Robert Galloway as medical superintendent, Allan was appointed consultant physician to Chase Farm Hospital at the inception of the NHS.

Allan had an eye for a gap in the publishing field. In 1948 he at last brought out the first edition of his book Emergencies in Medical Practice that covered every conceivable situation. It was very well received and gradually gained world wide recognition for the author and his hospital. It was translated into many languages and Allan saw it through to its 10th edition in 1976. Under a new editor it has now fittingly become Birch's Emergencies in Medical Practice. His other books Common Symptoms described for Nurses, The House Physician's Handbook 1st Edition 1955, 5th Edition 1980, and Medicine in Britain - a guide for Overseas Doctors were also highly successful.

As a man Allan was shy, gentle and unassuming. He rose early and did all his writing before breakfast. He was not much interested in sport and although he belonged to a golf club he was ‘no great shakes’. He was, however, an expert bee keeper, and was president of the local association. He took exercise by cycling to work to ‘help his joints’ as he suffered from rheumatoid disease for many years. For this his registrars were sometimes privileged to inject a dose of gold.

He never complained but confided that the best place for the prescribed corset was the back of the wardrobe. In time the bicycle gave way to a moped, and later still to a small motorbike. He used his car for domiciliary consultations and for holidays. He and his wife were great travellers and went to most countries of the world, often by caravan and always with his Minox camera.

Throughout his subsequent time at Chase Farm Hospital he insisted on being a general physician, as in his view, specialization was for teaching hospitals. He was a perfectionist to the end; one of his chiefs had called him a ‘hundred per-center’. Challenged by a sceptical HP, he showed that he still enjoyed examinations by passing the ECFMG at age 60! Also at an age when others would have rested on their laurels he learned from Sir Francis Avery Jones how to do gastroscopies, and had his wife paint the mucosal pictures in water colour — until photography became possible

Allan was a fine teacher and a great clinician who kept abreast of all modern developments. He was wholly committed to the NHS and considered that private practice detracted from the service. But perhaps his greatest attribute was to ensure that commonsense prevailed at the bedside. He felt patients needed to be protected from ‘enthusiastic young surgeons’. Despite his eminence he delighted in repeating a patient’s overheard remark ‘You see that old codger? That’s Dr Birch. They bring him round every Thursday on a refreshment course’!

Allan took a fatherly interest in his younger colleagues, and gently suggested a broadening of their activities, acting almost as a talent scout for the various local, regional and national organizations in which he was interested. He was founder member then president of the Middlesex County Medical Society, president of the whole time Consultants Association, chairman of the Enfield and Potters Bar division of the BMA, member of the North East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board, examiner in medicine for the University of Liverpool, and after retirement member of the Lord Chancellor’s Pensions Appeal Tribunal.

On retirement in 1968 he moved first to Hastings where he worked actively as honorary librarian to the Postgraduate Medical Centre and continued to study and write. He published Names we remember: 56 eponymous medical biographies and a year before he died How to Survive your Holiday. He had plans for rewriting the description of Parkinson’s disease from which he suffered for the last 16 years of his life, and he was collecting information for a series of articles on hospitals named after famous people and on the medical history of Hastings.

With sadly increasing disabilities Allan and Marjorie later moved to North Wales to be near their daughter. Perhaps his one disappointment was that neither of his children followed him into medicine, but he was pleased to coach a nephew who is now a teaching hospital consultant surgeon.

For such a mild-natured man one can only wonder at the determination that fired Allan Birch to live his life so fully and to encourage his wife (who also suffered in later years a chronic progressive neurological disorder) to do the same. Clearly they supported each other strongly through their many years of marrige. He is remembered with great affection, respect and admiration.

Patricia E Mortimer

[Brit.med.J., 1983, 287, 1312, 1559, 1639; Lancet, 1983, 2, 1095]

(Volume VII, page 46)

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