Lives of the fellows

Richard Stewart Stevens

b.19 January 1912 d.18 June 1998
MRCS LRCP(1936) MB BChir Cantab(1937) MA(1937) MRCP(1947) MD(1952) FRCP(1970)

Richard Stevens was a man of great ability who distinguished himself in the Army, in general practice and in geriatric medicine, but his greatest achievements came in the last twenty years of his life, after his retirement, when he worked for the Stroke Association and actively carried out research into strokes.

He was born in Coulsden, Surrey, but spent his childhood in Egypt, where his father held a senior position as managing director of a financial company. From his mother, Emily Florence (née Perridge), he inherited his integrity and high principles. At the age of 8 he was sent to prep school in England before going on to Tonbridge. In those days there was no air travel and he had to make the journey by boat and train. Thus he learned to travel independently at an early age. He had a gift for languages and from boyhood was fluent in French with an impeccable accent. From Tonbridge he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, and then to St Thomas’s where he qualified in 1936.

After house officer posts at St Thomas’s, the Radcliffe Infirmary and Edgware he spent a year as a medical registrar in Sheffield and in 1940 joined the RAMC. He served in the Middle East, Italy and Austria. He was a great organizer and in 1945 commanded a medical division, when he was mentioned in despatches. After demobilization he held further registrarships at St Thomas’s and St James, Balham. In 1948 he entered private general practice in Worthing, hoping that this would lead to a consultant appointment locally. Concurrently he became a part time SHMO in cardiology at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, and a clinical assistant at the National Heart Hospital. This experience produced material for his MD thesis and an excellent article on cardiac infarction in the BMJ.

Unhappy in general practice and determined to become a consultant, he then turned to geriatric medicine. For two years he visited Trevor Howell, founder of the British Geriatrics Society, travelling each week to Croydon to learn the ropes. In 1962, when he was fifty, he obtained a consultant post in Kent. Overcoming many difficulties he built up a fine geriatric service, attracted able junior staff and wrote some excellent papers, including a fine follow up study on patients with hip fractures and an observant article on geriatric emergencies.

At the end of his career, after his wife suffered a stroke, he became seized with the need for better care of stroke patients and resolved to devote the rest of his life to this end. A fifth of stroke patients never reach hospital and Stevens was one of the first to realise the importance of accurately recording the incidence of stroke in a defined community, reporting in 1982 on a stroke registry which he set up in south east Kent to record every case, whether or not the patient went to hospital. He showed that only 30 per cent survived a year. He also set up a research project in Dover and demonstrated in a controlled trial the value of a specialist stroke unit. This had led over time to a general acceptance of the value of stroke units. These pioneer studies, all done after his retirement, caused him to be recognized as a leading authority.

In 1979 he was invited to join the stroke committee of what was then the Chest Heart and Stroke Association (CHSA) and in 1984 he became the committee’s chairman. He worked for the Association for nineteen years. Well into his eighties he travelled the country to speak at multidisciplinary conferences on behalf of the Association. In 1986 he joined the council of the CHSA and in 1991, when he was already 79, its executive. Under his influence the work for stroke became the main concern of the CHSA, which in 1992 decided to concentrate all its resources in this field and changed its name to the Stroke Association. In 1997, at the age of 85, Stevens was elected as the Association’s vice-chairman. He persuaded the Association to include therapists in its research committee and to raise the profile of work in the community. He led the way in helping stroke patients and their families through stroke clubs and support workers and stroke co-ordinators. He promoted public education through information centres and above all through the promotion of research. It was largely due to his efforts that the first chair of stroke medicine was set up with funding from the Association at Nottingham University in 1992. This opened the door and there are now several other chairs, including one at the National Hospital, Queen Square.

He had other irons in the fire besides stroke. He was invited to become the medical administrator of the Canterbury Postgraduate Centre and he ran it for the first six years of his retirement. He was also asked to undertake the commissioning of the William Harvey Hospital at Ashford, for which with characteristic imagination and leadership he had suggested the name. In 1987 he was co-author of a history of the Kent and Canterbury Hospital (The Kent and Canterbury Hospital 1790 - 1987, Canterbury, Kent Postgraduate Medical Centre, 1987).

For many years he was a valued member of the steering committee which created the Pilgrims Hospice in Canterbury and once it was running he gave his services free to provide weekend cover and deputized for the medical director whenever he was needed.

In 1997 the British Geriatrics Society awarded him with a president’s medal.

He was a man of high intelligence with breadth of vision and total integrity. He had high principles and stuck to them. He was modest about his abilities and courageous in facing disappointment and failing health. He was an excellent chairman of committees, a fine public speaker with a beautiful voice, a lucid writer and an enthusiastic gardener with a special skill in the propagation of pot plants. He was a generous host. He had a natural courtesy which attracted the devotion of those who worked with him. He loved France and visited the country every year. In early life his French holidays with his children were legendary in the family. Although he was a compulsive worker he could relax and never failed to do the crossword. He enjoyed the theatre and music.

He first married Pamela (née Cragg), a St Thomas’s nurse, who died in 1978. They had two sons and a daughter. In 1979 he married Mary Grace, a social worker, who brought him much happiness and supported him wonderfully in his last illness.

R E Irvine

(Volume XI, page 548)

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