Lives of the fellows

Joseph Anthony Porteous (Lord) Trafford

b.20 July 1932 d.16 September 1989
Baron(1987) Kt(1985) MRCS LRCP(1957) MB BS Lond(1957) MRCP(1961) FRCP(1974)

Anthony Trafford, later Lord Trafford of Falmer, was born in Warlingham, Surrey, the son of Harold Trafford, a general practitioner, and his wife Laura Dorothy Porteous. He was educated at Charterhouse where he was a contemporary of John Wakeham who was to become a Cabinet minister. Later in life their paths crossed again, momentously, in both medical and political scenes. Trafford followed his father to Guy’s Hospital and after junior hospital appointments, and obtaining his membership of the College in 1961, he won a Fulbright scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in 1963. He returned to Guy’s as senior medical registrar and in 1965 was appointed consultant physician and gastroenterologist to the Brighton hospitals at the early age of 33.

His near magical ability to get things done was the basis of his extraordinarily successful career as a physician, administrator and politician. If he set out on an objective it was as good as achieved, whatever the odds against. Soon after his arrival at Brighton a patient with end stage kidney disease came under his care. Long term haemodialysis was in its infancy and he was unable to find a place at one of the few renal units at that time. Typically, he did not abandon the patient. Ignoring his lack of nephrological experience, he acquired a dialysis machine and the necessary skills and treated the patient himself. Seeing the need for more dialysis facilities, he created the Brighton renal unit which remained in the forefront of the rest of his professional life. Nevertheless, he was never a blinkered specialist and remained a superb general physician. With the advent of fibroptic endoscopy he returned to his earlier gastroenterological interests and started a department of endoscopy. He enjoyed teaching and took a delight in demonstrating to students that he remembered, often better than they did, the anatomy of - for example - a cranial nerve. To his patients he was not only a highly skilled clinician but also an ally who would, when necessary, fight for their needs against any bureaucratic constraint.

His incisive intellect, his ability to master a mass of information without discernible effort and his abilities as a communicator made him a formidable administrator and medical manager. He was not a great orator but it was a marvel to watch him at work in the various local medical committees, in which his views generally prevailed. His success depended in part on the timing of his contributions - he usually managed to speak last - but also on the calculated use of threatening hints. He became chairman of many of the committees, including the district management team, but a surprising exception was the physicians’ subcommittee which was composed of his closest colleagues; perhaps they were fearful of his power.

Local medical politics were not enough to satisfy him and in 1970 he fulfilled a long held ambition to enter Parliament when he was elected member for Wrekin. The Times ‘Diary' later described him as ‘by far the cleverest of the 1970 intake’. No part-time member, he spent weekends in his distant constituency and played a full part in the House of Commons. Yet he continued to fulfil his commitment as a consultant physician; often he would be found in the Brighton renal unit at 2 a.m. after returning from the Commons, and in his outpatient clinic at 9 o’clock in the morning after all night sittings in the House.

After the bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel in 1984 he was involved with the treatment of the victims, who included John Wakeham and other government ministers and their wives. His role as the link between the Royal Sussex County Hospital and Downing Street was a crucial one and led to the renewal of his friendship with the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, which had started in his House of Commons days. He was given a knighthood for this and his political services. A life peerage followed in 1987 and he took the title of Baron Trafford of Falmer, the site of the University of Sussex. A working peer, he threw himself into the work of the House of Lords with his usual vigour and commitment.

At that time Lord Trafford, or Tony as he was better known, had three jobs - consultant physician, chairman of the University council and member of the House of Lords - any one of which could be a full-time occupation for most people. But he never seemed rushed; he always had time to talk and was never observed consulting his watch, impatient to catch the London train or get to the next meeting. Ward rounds were invariably followed by sessions in the renal unit s office where, over endless cups of tea, he would hold forth with erudition and wit to junior doctors, nurses, and anyone else who would listen, on any subject other than medicine and politics, drawing on his huge collection of anecdotes and jokes - many of which would have been deemed unsuitable for polite company. He had a cadaverous visage, a lanky frame, slicked down lank dark hair and was not too fussed about the cut of his suits. He drove a Volkswagon Golf, often at illegal speed, and when asked why he had not acquired a car more fitting for the House of Lords car park his reply was that he did not need a status symbol.

In 1960 he married Helen Chalk, a staff nurse at Guy’s Hospital and the daughter of a long-established Cambridgeshire farming family. She devoted her life to him and their two children and supported him with understanding in his complicated life. Like royalty, Tony never carried cash; it was Helen who saw to it that his car never lacked petrol nor his pipe, tobacco. He enjoyed travelling, particularly in the United States and although not a gambler always seemed to fit in a trip to Las Vegas on the way back from any medical conference in that country. He was a passionate and highly competitive golfer and bridge player. He read voraciously, especially military history and biography but also cheap thrillers filched from the patients’ library.

Tony’s political views were somewhat more than right of centre but he was a caring and compassionate pragmatist, and his talents were recognized by Mrs Thatcher. He advised the government on the proposals for the Health Service reform which culminated in the 1989 White Paper. In July that year he reached the pinnacle of his political career when, without any previous ministerial experience, he was made Minister of State for Health - one of the most senior posts in government outside the Cabinet. His main task was to pilot the NHS bill through the Lords and, in particular, to sell the reforms to the reactionary medical profession. He was at last in the position to use his medical knowledge and his political talents on a grand scale. He took up the new challenges with his usual energy and persuasiveness and within a short time had seen more than 100 senior doctors to convince them of the merits of the reforms. He died less than eight weeks after his appointment and only eight days after the first symptom - from an unusually aggressive malignancy.

P Sharpstone

[Brit.med.J., 1989,299,911; Times, 18 Sept 1989;The Independent, 18 Sept 1989; The Daily Telegraph, 18 Sept 1989;The Guardian, 18 Sept 1989; Guy's Hosp. Gaz., Nov 1989,416-417]

(Volume IX, page 528)

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