Lives of the fellows

Arthur Peregrine (Sir) Thomson

b.1890 d.15 July 1977
Kt(1959) MC MB ChB Birm(1915) MRCP(1920) MD(1923) FRCP(1930)

Arthur Thomson was born in British Guiana where his father, Arthur Henry Thomson, was a colonial civil servant. He was educated at Dulwich College and the University of Birmingham, and to both he retained lifelong allegiance and showed profound gratitude. His high intelligence and abundant energy were soon evident, and at Birmingham he was Queen’s scholar, Ingleby scholar, Russell memorial prizeman and achieved first class honours in medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology. He graduated in 1915 and immediately thereafter joined the RAMC serving in the trenches in France as a regimental medical officer with the Guards until he was, somewhat against his will, promoted to command a field ambulance. He was awarded the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre with Star and was twice mentioned in British and once in French despatches. On demobilization he was invited to join the consultant staff of the General Hospital in Birmingham and despite having no higher qualification he was appointed assistant physician in 1919. The following year he was elected a member of the College and in 1923 he obtained his MD.

A long career of success and service as a consultant physician and academician followed, which few in the twentieth century have equalled. Small in stature, he had the appearance, the manner, and always the behaviour of a gentleman. To everyone he was courteous, charming and generous whatever their station, and even to those who wounded him he was incapable of bearing a grudge. No man had greater consideration for the feelings and welfare of his colleagues or fellow men.

As a physician he was one of the giants of his generation. His reputation and his practice embraced the length and breadth of the land, for he had a diagnostic flair that enabled him to solve problems which had defeated all others, and a capacity always to say - in a few words — exactly what was appropriate and kind to every patient and to every colleague in every situation.

‘AP’, as he was always affectionately called, had an enormous capacity for work, the ability to deal with patients and their relatives quickly and yet to leave their anxieties solved, and the knack of brevity and clarity in his letters; thus despite an enormous practice and heavy academic commitments he had time to read, and enjoy country pursuits, and was such a cultured and knowledgeable man that his company at lunch or dinner was always exciting, full of interest, wit and friendship.

Essentially a general physician, he ran the diabetic clinic in Birmingham for many years, and published a number of important papers on diabetes at a time when treatment first became possible for its victims. He also contributed to the epidemiology of rheumatic fever and was instrumental in establishing the Baskerville School for rheumatic children. An outbreak of psittacosis in Birmingham led to a series of publications about a disease until then unrecognized, and later, appreciating the implications of increasing life expectation, he devoted much research to the ‘Problems of ageing and chronic sickness’ which was the subject of his Lumleian lecture in 1949. In 1930 he had been elected a fellow, and in 1962 received the high honour of being Harveian orator.

In 1947 he was appointed part-time professor of therapeutics in the University of Birmingham. In 1951 he became dean of the faculty of medicine and the following year vice-principal of the University. He was a member of the General Medical Council 1951-1965, of the governing body of the University College, Ibadan, and of the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas. He also served on the Hinchcliffe and McNair committees, and on the council to advise the Minister of Health on the efficiency of hospitals. He was president of the British Medical Association 1958-1959, and chairman of the Birmingham regional hospital board, to which he gave magnificent service over many years, 1962-1963. He was knighted in 1959 and received honorary degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh and Birmingham. In 1959 he was Linacre lecturer at St John’s College, Cambridge.

‘AP’ was one of the original members of that most exclusive club, the Medical Pilgrims, and a prominent and popular member of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland. He was chairman of the Union Club in Birmingham and also of the Buckland Club. The evening of his long life was marred by heart block, Stokes-Adams attacks and a pacemaker, but he refused to be daunted and continued to play bridge every afternoon at the Edgbaston Golf Club, to read, to walk and to enjoy talking to and dining with his countless friends, until very shortly before his death.

A fine bust of him by Franta Belsky is in the medical school of the University of Birmingham, where the great assembly hall bears his name. The building of the West Midlands regional health authority is ‘Arthur Thomson House’. However, there was never a man less in need of such reminders of his great contribution to medicine. He will ever be remembered for his distinction as a physician, for his kindness and generosity — he gave almost all his material possessions to the University of Birmingham - and for his unswerving devotion to Birmingham Medical School and its teaching hospitals. Unlike so many of subsequent generations he resisted all temptations to diversify his energies and efforts outside the city he loved, and this was one of the secrets of his greatness.

He married Minnie Scott Lindsley with whom he was supremely happy. They had one adopted daughter. Lady Thomson died in 1960.

AGW Whitfield

[, 1977, 2, 395; Lancet, 1977, 2, 311; Times, 27 July 1977]

(Volume VII, page 575)

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