Lives of the fellows

Ronald Edward Smith

b.18 January 1901 d.18 October 1983
MRCS LRCP(1925) MB BChir Cantab(1927) MRCP(1927) FRCP(1939)

Ronald Smith was born at Swaffham, in Norfolk, where his father Walter Smith was a farmer. His mother was Eleanor, the daughter of John Bloom who was also a farmer in East Anglia. ‘RE’, as he was always affectionately known, was at Swaffham Grammar School before going to King Edward VI School at Norwich. He won a Matthew Parker exhibition to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and from there he went to Guy’s Hospital, qualifying with the conjoint in 1925 and obtaining his Cambridge medical degree and his membership of the College two years later. For a year he held a visiting fellowship at the Henry Phipps Institute, a part of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. At Guy’s he was medical registrar and tutor, and chief clinical assistant to the children’s department. There he met Maud Campbell, a beautiful Guy’s nurse and the daughter of Douglas Campbell, a merchant, and they were married in 1931. RE’s old tutor at Corpus, Sir Will Spens, who was by then master of the College, suggested that he should apply for the post of physician to Rugby School. He was appointed by Sir Austen Chamberlain, chairman of the governors, in the cabinet room in Downing Street and took up his duties and that of physician to the Hospital of St Cross in Rugby the same year. While at Rugby his interest in the infectious diseases of childhood led to the revolutionizing of the practice of quarantine and isolation, and he published excellent papers in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Lancet as well as making it the subject of his Milroy lecture at the College in 1940. He also studied the implications and natural history of undescended testicle, and in 1941 used this experience for his Hunterian professorship at the Royal College of Surgeons. It resulted in royalty and nobility from all over the world seeking his advice over their heirs. In 1947 the epidemic of poliomyelitis involved four boys at Rugby, which greatly worried and upset RE. He had already contributed two papers on the disease, and a third, ‘All about polio’, was of the greatest value. He became president of the Medical Officers of Schools Association, and health adviser to the National Association of Boy’s Clubs. Another of his splendid papers on the physicians to Christ’s Hospital reflected his deep interest in adolescent medicine. His skill and kindness are remembered with affection and gratitude by many old Rugbeians who were his patients at school and have become pillars of the state.

RE already had a great reputation and a large consulting practice in the Midlands when the National Health Service was established in 1947, but then he also accepted the appointment of physician to Gulson Hospital at Coventry, resigning his post at Rugby School and being appointed consulting physician to the school two years later. At Gulson, RE’s advent had a dramatic effect; the excellence of his own work and the impact on other members of the staff impressed everyone. His practice was enormous and he worked unceasingly until he reached retiring age.

In 1961 he accepted the appointment of the University of Birmingham’s area director of postgraduate medical education for Coventry and Warwickshire. He had always been intensely anxious to further the careers of his juniors and this new work gave him enormous happiness; after his retirement from clinical practice in 1966 he devoted his whole time to postgraduate medical education. He was the driving force behind the building and successful establishment of the Warwickshire Postgraduate Medical Centre and he was also, with John Lister, responsible for the foundation of the National Association of Clinical Tutors.

RE was of course firstly a superb physician, with a special interest in adolescent medicine and postgraduate medical education, but he was also a great scholar. His papers on Lord Randolph Churchill, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes bore the stamp of historical distinction, and only an hour or so after giving a magnificent paper on Joseph Chamberlain before the West Midlands Physicians Association, of which he was a past president, he collapsed with a stroke from which he did not recover.

RE’s achievements were prodigious, his friends and his disciples were legion, his contribution to the welfare of his medical colleagues and his fellow men was enormous; yet he was always modest in the extreme and ever anxious to do more. A magnificent portrait by GR Corbett captures the warmth, the distinction and the selflessness of the man.

His intense loyalty to Corpus, to Guy’s, to the hospitals at Rugby, Coventry and Nuneaton, to the Royal College of Physicians, the Association of Physicians, the universities of Birmingham and Warwick and everything else with which he was associated was remarkable. In the College he rarely missed Comitia and served as a councillor from 1954 to 1956; no institution could have had a more loyal and unselfish servant.

In his early years RE was keen on shooting; later he became a keen gardener and was a formidable bridge player. His home always bore the hallmark of his kindness, his hospitality, his generosity, his scholarship and his loyalty. His wife, and one son and two daughters, survived him.

AGW Whitfield

[Lancet, 1983, 2, 1040; Times, 24 Oct 1983; Brit.med.J., 1983, 287, 1386-87]

(Volume VII, page 547)

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