Lives of the fellows

William Roy Swinburn

b.30 September 1930 d.6 March 1989
MB ChB Manch(1956) MRCP(1967) FRCP(1985)

Roy Swinburn was born in the family home at Cheadle Hulme, Manchester, the son of William Swinburn and his wife Emily, and educated at Manchester Grammar School and the University of Manchester medical school. After house jobs in Salford, he worked in general medicine as SHO in Huddersfield and later as a registrar in Rhyl, Wales, where he was also the doctor for the lifeboat crew. He then went into general practice, first in Prestatyn and subsequently as a principal in Workington, Cumberland. After three years he decided that it was not for him. He therefore took a year out, living in a small village in North Wales, and working for his membership of the College. He lived in an old vicarage and when visited by the new incumbent of a nearby parish who introduced himself by saying ‘I’m Herllan’ (the name of the parish), Roy replied ‘And I’m Cheadle Hulme’. This apparently caused some consternation in ecclesiastical circles and was typical of Roy’s refusal to accept convention.

He returned to Manchester, initially as a clinical assistant in general medicine but soon obtained a job as a registrar in neurology and then became senior registrar in rheumatology. His approach to problems was not always orthodox; on one occasion it was clear that a young boy, with an apparently complex neurological problem, was swinging the lead. On the ward round one day, Roy suggested hydrotherapy; this consisted of lying the boy on the floor each day and pouring buckets of water over him until he moved a little more. He soon recovered. Roy was a great innovator, introducing into everyday clinical practice things as diverse as a diagnostic index, hypnosis, and sexual counselling for the disabled. As a senior registrar he became aware that many of his patients had sexual problems and at that time there was no help easily available, but he was not deterred by this. He tried to ‘desensitize’ the staff by using discussion groups and by showing sexually explicit sex education films. He bought all the available books on psychosexual counselling and began to treat patients with these problems. His knowledge, apparent lack of embarrassment and general approachability, soon resulted in many of the staff also seeking his advice on their marital and sexual problems.

Roy had a strong interest in maintaining reliable medical records and introduced various protocols and proformas, and a system of problem orientated records invaluable in dealing with chronic disabling diseases. When computers began to creep into medicine he taught himself progamming, often working well into the night until a particular programme was running. He used this knowledge to computerize the diagnostic index and to teach others, so that computers could be introduced into the running of the unit. The list of his innovations grew as he continued to look at new ways of improving the service he gave. He was also a skilled negotiator and committee man. When first appointed to his consultant post he saw the need for expansion in rheumatology in Lancashire and he was instrumental in the establishment of three additional district posts. At Wrightington he was chairman of the medical executive committee from 1976-1983 and a member of the district management team from 1978-83.

Roy’s great kindness was not confined to his patients. He was a friend and mentor to all who worked with him He always listened to the views of others; organizing weekly half-hour meetings of all staff on the unit. He delighted in playing devil’s advocate, with extreme and usually right wing comments. One could never be sure how serious he was but he did read The Daily Telegraph. He also chain-smoked and produced strong counter arguments to anyone who objected to this. His room was full of a large variety of cigarettes and ‘Smoking Allowed’ notices. Apart from medicine, his great interests were fishing and gardening. He never married. He was devoted to his parents and was greatly affected by the death of his father in 1986, and that of his mother just three months before his own death. He was only just beginning to recover from the death of his parents when he himself died suddenly, in the house in which he had been born, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

P J Smith

[Brit.med.J., 1989,299,256]

(Volume IX, page 506)

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