Lives of the fellows

Ralph (Sir) Southward

b.2 January 1908 d.16 October 1997
KCVO(1975) MB ChB Glasg(1930) MRCP(1939) FRCP(1970)

Sir Ralph Southward, apothecary to the Queen, was an outstanding physician who was highly regarded by his patients and by his peers. Born in Glasgow, as a child Ralph was of a gentle manner - a characteristic that later marked his life in all spheres. As a boy he loved the outdoors; he fished for trout, he bird-watched and he was a boy scout, becoming a King’s scout. He won a scholarship to Hutchesons Grammar School in Glasgow which he turned down in favour of a place at the High School there where he was a scholar of distinction.

He obtained his medical degree at Glasgow University in 1930 and chose wisely in gaining postgraduate experience. First he was a house surgeon at the Western Infirmary and then a house physician at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow. He then went as an assistant to a general practice in West Lothian before taking over a country practice in Renfrewshire. This failed to reach Ralph’s expectations of life. He had the foresight and the imagination to improve his medical experience by going south to the Postgraduate Medical School, now the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, at Hammersmith in London - a brave choice at a time when this school was in its infancy and viewed by some with suspicion because it questioned scientifically the orthodox and the conventional.

Before moving south Ralph made another perceptive choice by proposing marriage to Evelyn Tassell who was a physiotherapist. They were married in 1935 and he and Peggy embarked on an extremely happy life together. They shared professional interests; they shared social and cultural interests; and they shared the enjoyment of family life being blessed with four sons (one of whom succeeded him as apothecary to the Queen).

To many of Ralph’s generation the Second World War was an unwelcome interruption in their professional career, but Ralph put his military experiences to good use. No doubt luck played some part but Ralph grasped the opportunity to enhance his administrative skills, his leadership abilities and his professional knowledge. After joining the Royal Army Medical Corps he was put to the test by being made medical officer to a field ambulance in North Africa. He shone. Having passed his membership of the Royal College of Physicians in 1939, and with his experience at the Postgraduate Medical School, he was an obvious choice - not that anything was always obvious in the RAMC - to be made a medical specialist. He was appointed officer-in-charge of a medical division and promoted to lieutenant colonel. The officer-in-charge of a medical division is responsible for the care of all medical, as opposed to surgical, patients in the hospital, and these may number three to five hundred in-patients of all ranks plus having to run a busy out-patient department. Ralph’s team included a number of general duties officers who under his direction supervised the day-to-day care of the ward patients. It was not his style to harangue or lecture. He made his point by telling little stories in a slightly diffident, hesitant way. His hospital moved around the war zones and he served in Egypt, India and in Ceylon. He learnt a lot - about medicine and administration.

When the war ended Ralph had a crucial decision to make. Should he seek to be a consultant physician at one of the then voluntary hospitals or should he start a private general practice? Economic considerations played a major role in his and Peggy’s decision. Ralph had a wife and family to support; consultant physicians to a voluntary hospital received no remuneration and it might have taken many years before he could establish himself in private consulting practice. He chose to start his own general practice in St John's Wood.

The success of this venture was never in doubt. Ralph was an outstandingly good doctor and his patients liked him because he listened to them quietly, he was understanding and not judgmental. Above all he made himself available and prided himself on his availability - a service that patients appreciate so much. During the war Ralph had met many people and made many friends which enhanced the success of his practice in St John's Wood. So successful was it that for the convenience of those who lived elsewhere in the metropolis, he moved the practice in 1952 to the more central location of Devonshire Place.

Ralph’s judgement and his quiet Scottish wisdom made him an excellent chooser of the consultants his patients should be referred to if they or he thought a second opinion was desirable. Often he would accompany the patient and learn from the professional exchange. It was not surprising that, when appropriate, he often sought the help of Sir (later Lord) Horace Evans [Munk’s Roll, Vol. V, p. 123] and a great friendship developed between them. Not only did they share professional interests but they both enjoyed horse-racing.

When Sir Nigel Loring retired as apothecary to the Royal Household in 1964, Ralph Southward was the obvious replacement and was invited by the Lord Chamberlain, then Lord Cobbold, and by Sir Ronald Bodley Scott [Munk’s Roll, Vol. VII, p.521], who had succeeded Lord Evans as physician to the Queen, to accept the post. He did so, and two years later became apothecary to the Household of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. These were onerous commitments because Ralph was responsible for the medical care of a large number of people, on either side of the green baize door, at both Buckingham Palace and Clarence House - from the senior executives and the private secretaries to the grooms, chefs, chauffeurs and ostlers, plus their wives and families. In 1970 Southward was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and in 1972 he was appointed apothecary to the Queen herself.

Ralph had to retire from the Royal Households when in 1974 he reached the age of 65, but he continued in private practice until 1992, when failing eye-sight curtailed not only his professional activities but his trout and salmon fishing at which he was very skilled. He and Peggy continued, however, to enjoy playing golf together. Ralph’s ending was sudden and painless. Pneumonia is indeed an old man’s best friend.

Sir Richard Bayliss

[The Daily Telegraph, 30 Oct 1997; The Times, 29 Oct 1997]

(Volume X, page 460)

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