Lives of the fellows

Thomas Joseph Agius-Ferrante

b.8 May 1916 d.21 January 1974
BSc Malta(1933) MD(1940) DCH London(1944) MRCP(1945) FRCP(1962)

Thomas Agius-Ferrante, known to his friends as Tommy, was born in Malta and spent his life there. Somewhat thick-set and of swarthy appearance, suggesting a Moorish descent, he had a lively sense of humour and enjoyed telling stories against himself, accompanied by a sardonic down-turning of the corners of his mouth. On his honeymoon he was travelling by train through France, conversing in Italian with his lovely wife; they were amused to hear the other occupants of the compartment discussing in French how such a beautiful girl could allow herself to marry such an ugly man. On alighting from the train Tommy could not resist thanking his travelling companions, in flawless French, for their interesting debate.

In the early years of World War II, Malta underwent a savage epidemic of acute anterior poliomyelitis and Sir Herbert Seddon was sent out to advise on the orthopaedic aspects of the care of the injured. He was so impressed with the quality of the work that Tommy was doing that he was instrumental in arranging for him to come to this country to complete his training as a paediatrician. Thus it was that Tommy arrived at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, in 1943, where he remained for two years.

Already Tommy had formed his modus vivendi, which he retained for the rest of his life. It was his custom to rise at 4 am, attend Mass, return home to his ‘continental’ breakfast, and begin his day's work at hospital by 6 am. His visit to England was the first time he had left Malta and he, who had never previously seen a mountain or a river, was deeply impressed with what the English scene had to offer. He liked to walk from Great Ormond Street, before sunrise, down to the Embankment and watch the sun rise over the Thames which was for him one of the most lovely sights — and then return to the hospital and study at his books until he met his fellow students at breakfast. His training was crowned with success at the Membership examination of this College, and by obtaining his DCH. When he first arrived in England, although fluent in Italian and French his command of English was less perfect. On his first morning he had to report to the Colonial Office. When he left the hotel where he had spent the night, the hall porter directed him to the appropriate bus stop. He read the notice ‘Queue on the other side’, so he crossed the road and caught the bus which eventually landed him in Ruislip before returning to deposit him at the Colonial Office. On another occasion, when visiting a Juvenile Court, his confusion between a brothel institution and a Borstal institution caused some misgivings on the part of the woman magistrate.

On his return to Malta, Tommy attacked with vigour and persistence the paedriatic problems that faced him. The steady and considerable decline in the Infant Mortality Rate which ensued was the outcome of his work as Senior Child Health Officer and of his teaching. He was the first to recognise the presence of Leishmaniasis and of Toxoplasmosis in Malta. When faced with a sick child needing facilities for treatment which he knew were available in England but not in Malta, he spared no effort to persuade his Government to underwrite the cost involved in sending the child over here.

To see Tommy at work in Out-Patients, or to visit outlying farms with him, was to understand why he was so beloved, for he had a heart of gold. Fees were of little importance to him; maybe after visiting a farm with him he would explain that the farmer had had a bad season and would not be able to afford anything but perhaps, if he were lucky, he might get a dozen eggs for Christmas. There was at that time no National Health Service in Malta. Nevertheless, hospitality demanded that he should accept a nip of whisky then and there, and this gradually led to Tommy’s undoing, for a nip of whisky became too frequent a habit and eventually culminated in fatal damage to his liver. The Beloved Physician would be no misnomer for Tommy. Malta can be proud of her son.

Sir Wilfred Sheldon
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[College records; personal recollections]

(Volume VI, page 9)

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