Lives of the fellows

Selwyn (Sir) Selwyn-Clarke

b.17 December 1893 d.12 March 1976
KBE(1951) CMG(1945) MC(1918) MRCS LRCP(1916) BS Lond(1919) MD(1921) DPH Cantab(1921) DTM&H(1923) MRCP(1926) FRCP(1937)

Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, formerly Governor of the Seychelles (1947-1951), was educated at Bedales and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London University, and after a brief spell as RMO and assistant anaesthetist at Bart’s joined the RAMC as medical officer in charge to 285 Brigade RFA, and later to HM Queen Victoria Rifles. He was promoted to captain in 1918 and received the MC. On demobilization he began what was to be a long and distinguished career in the colonial medical service, and the year 1919 found him on the Gold Coast. He was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1929.

His services in East Africa were interrupted by a period in Malaya at the height of the depression. He advised his seniors on health services despite the prevailing financial gloom. Returning to the Gold Coast he became ADMS in 1932, deputy director of health services, Gold Coast, in 1933, and the Gold Coast delegate to the Pan-African Health Conference in Johannesburg in 1935. He was appointed director of medical services, Colonial Medical Services, in 1937, and was elected a fellow of the College. That same year he became civil DMS, Hong Kong.

In 1935 he married Hilda Alice, daughter of Harry Browning of Horsham, Sussex, and they had one daughter. His wife, known as‘Red Hilda’, was an ardent left-winger with political ambitions, and she played an important part in his history. Throughout his service Selwyn-Clarke never hesitated to go over the heads of his superiors and at times tried their patience sorely.

Selwyn-Clarke had been director of medical services (civil) in Hong Kong for nearly four years before war began in the Far East in 1941. He moulded the existing services to his design, and provided emergency services for thousands of mainland Chinese who fled into the colony illegally before the Japanese invaders. His wife and child did not accompany the families of the armed and government services when they were evacuated to Australia; Selwyn-Clarke, with the support of his wife, considered that if citizens of Chinese or mixed races were not to be moved from an area in which hostilities seemed imminent, his own family should remain and share whatever fate lay in store. He was courteous in his dealings, he was more often than not right in his judgements, he did not drink or smoke, and he and his dynamic wife found little of interest in much of the social life of Hong Kong at that time. These characteristics earned him respect from many and a degree of envious criticism from others, which left him unmoved.

When Hong Kong was surrendered to the Japanese in December 1941 Selwyn-Clarke, with his wife and child, and with a small staff from his medical department, was not at first interned. He was allowed a very restricted degree of liberty to try to restore the health services shattered during the fighting. He used part of this time to acquire small quantities of special food and drugs which he foresaw would be essential for the treatment of the deficiency diseases which would soon appear in the colony. These stores were carried laboriously, but openly, to their destinations by bands of women organized by his wife. All allied wounded were concentrated in the British Military Hospital and it also received sick from the prisoner of war camps. Advice on the prevention and treatment of the deficiencies was conveyed secretly to the doctors in the hospital, and this service helped morale at a time when the outlook was grim. Supplies were also sent to prisoner of war and internment camps, and the system, which began before stocks from the International Red Cross became available, continued after his arrest until the end of the war.

During this period of restricted freedom he had passed, he thought secretly, two messages to the neighbouring Portuguese colony of Macao. In one he tried to hasten the arrival of Red Cross help for Hong Kong; in the other his aim was to warn the American Command in the Pacific that large numbers of allied prisoners, mostly British, were about to be shipped to Japan. The latter message failed in its purpose, for the Lisbon Maru was torpedoed in October 1942 by an American submarine with very heavy loss of life.

In May 1943 he was arrested by the Japanese gendarmerie, the Kempeitai of evil repute. Among the many charges brought against him was one of communicating Japanese naval and troop movements to the British Embassy in Lisbon. He denied all. For the next ten months he was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with no window and only a faint glimmer of indirect lighting. He was clad only in unwashed shirt and trousers, with the floor for his bed and a latrine bucket and a mug of water for furnishing. He was interrogated almost constantly, beaten frequently, suspended by the wrists, and given the water treatment in an attempt to get him to incriminate himself and others. He was in sight and hearing of fellow prisoners beaten senseless by their questioners. After a short time he underwent what passed for a trial and was condemned to death, but even then questioning, beatings and similar persuasive measures continued. At one time he reached the stage when he told his captors, not begged or even asked them it should be noted, to get on and carry out the sentence. He would not give way, but ten months after his arrest he was transferred to another prison, still in solitary confinement but in a slightly bigger cell, with a small window which gave a glimpse of the sky. Towards the end of 1944 he was tried again; there may have been local influences at work, for the death sentence was replaced by a three year prison sentence. After just under two years in prison he was released to join his wife and child in a small internment camp. He carried a severe physical disability until his death, but when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 he could not be dissuaded from working to set up the medical department again, his first thought being, as always, for the benefit of the remaining citizens of Hong Kong. A British fellow prisoner saw him at that time as a gaunt, bent and disabled man, whose mental powers and resolution remained undimmed. He did not go on leave for another two months and later he returned to Hong Kong, again as director of medical services, before he took up his appointment as Governor and Commander in Chief, Seychelles, in July 1947.

Selwyn-Clarke was brought up in a Christian household, but in adult life he was not a religious man. He drew for support only on his own concept of what is good and what is not. He was an extremely stubborn man and would never compromise on any matter of principle. He could be hard on people who had strayed from the path along which he considered duty lay, but after the Japanese surrender he never blamed any of his staff who had broken under pressure. He, better than anyone else, knew what they had had to endure. He refused to give evidence against Japanese accused of war crimes ‘because the victors could not properly be judges in their own cause’, and he helped certain Japanese who had shown him small kindnesses, in secret, in prison. He dedicated his memoirs, Footprints, to a Japanese interpreter, a Christian minister of religion in civil life in Japan, who had risked his own life to help many in Hong Kong who were victims of the war, even though they were officially enemies of his own country. He was also the author of numerous books, reports and articles, ranging from practical medicine, through travel, to sociological subjects.

At the end of his long service overseas, Selwyn was still an alert and able man with a drive towards public service. Although over the normal age limit for recruitment, he sought and obtained a principal medical officer post at the Ministry of Health. He was a firm believer in the NHS and anxious to help it in any way he could, even though the new post meant a different outlook from the authoritarian direction of colonial services with which he was familiar. For five years he applied his great energy to the problems of medical manpower in the hospitals, and to liaison work in the regions. Although he made new friends, the work was not congenial and at 60 he turned to work for the Society of Medical Officers of Health, where he hoped to further the development of community medicine in which he so strongly believed.

Selwyn made no major contribution to knowledge or to thinking, but he was - and remained - a good physician. He was a meticulous and tireless administrator; he was also single-minded, and favoured his own ideas and plans. He argued in their support politely, but strongly and persistently, and often sought to proceed further and faster along his own lines than others thought wise. As might be expected, he ruffled the feelings of many people in the process. He was a very brave man; few could have approached the level of courage with which he endured imprisonment. He was also an obstinate man; it must have given him satisfaction to reflect that, in the end, his will did not give way.

DC Bowie
Sir George Godber
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1976, 1, 775, 968; Times, 15 & 19 Mar 1976]

(Volume VII, page 523)

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