b.30 May 1909 d.1 September 1992
OBE(1945) MRCS LRCP(1934) BChir Cantab(1934) MB(1935) MRCP(1936) MD(1940) FRCP(1950) FRCPE(1952)
Richard Turner was born in Purley, Surrey, where his father Sydney Duke Turner was a general practitioner. He came of a medical family with forbears in Sussex for many years. His maternal grandfather was Sir James Wainwright, treasurer of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, for 25 years. Educated at The Limes, Croydon, and Epsom College, he went up to Cambridge and took a first in the natural sciences tripos. He then studied medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital and on qualifying became house physician and registrar in the children’s ward and subsequently medical registrar, 1934-39.
On the outbreak of war he joined the RAMC, first with the rank of captain followed by that of major and medical specialist. In January 1941 he was promoted lieutenant colonel in charge of the 92nd Medical Division with a 1200-bedded hospital in Egypt, at el Kantara and subsequently at Salerno. He was awarded the OBE in 1945.
After the war Stanley Davidson, later Sir Stanley [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.136], professor of medicine at Edinburgh, recruited a group of young lecturers to staff - as consultants - the former municipal hospitals, then elevated to the status of teaching general hospitals serving the north of the city. On Turner’s arrival in Edinburgh he set about building up, out of scant resources, the cardiac department at the Western General Hospital - to complement the existing department at the Royal Infirmary. His infectious enthusiasm and energy soon attracted colleagues and students. He was reader in medicine at the University until his retirement in 1974.
In the late 1950s, appalled at the massive toll of coronary heart disease in Scotland, aware that it was not a disease of old age but had its origins in youth or childhood and its most devastating results in middle age, he took up the cause of primary prevention. Although not himself a research worker, he visited and corresponded for many years with leading authorities in the USA, Finland and Belgium, and publicly advocated government action to reduce smoking and dietary dependence on high cholesterol and saturated fats. He believed government policy should be based on medical and scientific advice and not influenced by economic or food manufacturers’ interests. He advocated nothing which was not already contained in published offical medical and scientific reports but his outspoken expression of these views in public - in scientific meetings and in the pages of The Farmers' Weekly - incurred some hostility in more conservative medical circles, both from scientific purists who felt that absolute proof of efficacy should precede action and from those who advocated a more political approach.
Today much of the heat has gone out of this controversy; nearly all authorities agree with the desirability of dietary prudence. In those early days rheumatic mitral valve disease claimed many young lives and crippled many more. The operation of widening the narrowed mitral valve had rarely been performed and was regarded as very hazardous. In collaboration with his surgical colleague, Andrew Logan of the surgical unit - then at the Eastern General Hospital - he submitted a series of desperately ill patients to surgery and by careful study of physical signs, together with follow-up of patients, he learned much about the natural history of the disease and the features which presaged operative success. The papers by Logan and Turner were among the early landmarks of heart surgery and the operation of mitral valvotomy, which saved many lives in the days before open heart surgery, became a safe alternative in the late 1960s and still has a useful place in Third World countries.
Among his many contributions, he started the Edinburgh Cardiac Club to bring together fellow clinical cardiologists to discuss common problems. He was on the council of the British Cardiac Society and the author of many papers on cardiological subjects. He edited the chapter on ‘Diseases of the cardiovascular system’ in Davidson’s Principles and practice of medicine, London & Edinburgh, E & S Livingstone, first published in 1952. He also published two practical monographs on Electrocardiography ... , and Auscultation of the heart ... , also E & S Livingstone, both first published in 1963. Among his papers on valvular heart disease were his studies assessing the efficacy and side-effects of several of the early drugs for controlling high blood pressure.
In 1966, following the discovery in the USA of the technique of cardiac defibrillation, he set up one of this country’s earliest coronary care units at the Western General. This led to an overriding interest in the prevention of second heart attacks by the now familiar modification of life style, which he energetically urged his patients to follow.
Dick Turner was an immensely likeable character, very sociable and with a fund of stories - usually of minor social mishaps which had befallen him. His clinical work and teaching were thorough and patients throughout Scotland attest to his personal concern and kindness over the years. His forthright and occasionally brusque manner concealed a modest and gentle nature and he felt deeply for both human and animal suffering. He visited Third World countries as an adviser on medical services and his love of travel led him quite late in life to Butan in the foothills of the Himalayas; he believed he was the first man to record the cardiograph of a crocodile in its natural habitat.
In Scotland, he particularly loved the Berwickshire coastguard cottages where family holidays were spent and which he visited just before his death. His hospitality there was delightfully informal. His roots lay in and around the downland village of Ditchling in Sussex and it was to the family house there - Cotterlings - that he returned to spend his retirement years. A bequest from his cousin, Mrs Mary Dumbrell, gave him ownership of the ancient Saxon barrow of Lodge Hill, together with some farmland and barns, and he set up a charitable trust so that the village should benefit from it; workshops were established for young artists and craftsmen and support given to the museum and church. His wife Paula, whom he married in 1941, survived him. They had four children, a daughter and three sons.
A H Kitchin
[Brit.med.J., 1992,305,1287-8; Times, 30 Sept 1992; The Daily Telegraph, 11 Sept 1992; Proc.roy.Coll.Physns.Edin., v.23,No 1 (Jan 1993)]
(Volume IX, page 536)
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