Lives of the fellows

Edgar Ashworth Underwood

b.9 March 1899 d.6 March 1980
Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur(1947) BSc Glasg(1924) MA MB ChB(1924) DPH(1926) MD(1936) MRCP(1959) FRCP(1965) Hon Dlitt Glasg(1970)

Edgar Underwood, son of David Underwood, a bus driver in Dumfries, and his wife Janet Grierson, a descendant of Sir Robert Grierson of Lag (the Sir Robert Redgauntlet in Walter Scott’s novel Redgauntlet) was born in Dumfries. At the Academy in Dumfries he received his early schooling, obtaining the Boya bursary to Glasgow University in 1917. His university career was notable for the breadth of his scholastic accomplishments, as exemplified by degrees obtained in philosophy (MA), science (BSc) and medicine (MD). He was awarded the Cullen medal and Hunter medals in midwifery and clinical medicine.

His proclivity within the subject of medicine was reflected by his obtaining the DPH in 1926, and his appointment in 1927 as assistant medical officer of health, County of Lanark. During his next appointment at Rotherham, which included that of tuberculosis officer and medical superintendent at Oakwood Sanatorium, Underwood produced his Manual of Tuberculosis, Clinical and Administrative (1931). This ran into three editions by 1945. Later, in 1932, he moved to Leeds, where he was honorary lecturer in public health at the University, and in 1937 he went to West Ham as medical officer of health - where he stayed through the war years until 1945. Later in life he would often refer to his experiences during this period, and his epidemiological anxieties. But about this time the focus of Underwood’s medical interests changed dramatically.

In 1946 Underwood became director of the Wellcome Institute for the history of medicine, an appointment he held until 1964. In 1947 he became a member of the British Society of the History of Science, of which he was president from 1957 to 1962. He had become a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1933, and was secretary of both the section of epidemiology and the section of the history of medicine between 1942 and 1947, becoming president of the section of the history of medicine in 1948 -1950. He remained an active member of the council of that section until his death.

For some years his activity in the field of medical history had coincided with his friendship with the distinguished medical historian, Charles Singer, and in 1949 Underwood married Singer’s daughter, Nancy Waley Singer.

As the director of the WIHM, Underwood was strongly influenced by his sense of the overwhelming richness of Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection. He was well aware of the extent to which this remained unexplored, perhaps most acutely so when he supervised its removal from Portman Square to Euston Road. His reaction to this state of affairs was one of tenacious preservation, whilst he slowly and meticulously evaluated and organized the collection. These methods characterized not only his attitude towards the Wellcome collection, but towards medical history in general.

Underwood was a perfectionist, a trait which manifested itself in his numerous lectures. He delivered the Vicary lecture in 1946 at the Royal College of Surgeons, the Garrison lecture to the American Association for the History of Medicine in 1947, the Fitzpatrick lectures at the Royal College of Physicians, London, 1971 —1972, and a number of papers to the Royal Society of Medicine between 1935 and 1962.

Underwood’s best known work was a revised edition of his father-in-law’s Short History of Medicine (1962); and the two volumes of Science, Medicine and History: Essays in honour of Charles Singer (1953) exhibit his skilful choice of authors and his editorial capacities and organization. It is significant that he played no part in revising the later editions of Singer’s Short History of Scientific Ideas, for Underwood was not so interested in ideas as in the history of epidemiological diseases and the lives of doctors.

Tenacious, meticulous perfectionism Underwood applied to his own work, as doggedly and conscientiously as to that of others. It led him to a passion for collecting facts; it underlay his collection of a library of some 15,000 books relevant to his work, which occupied every nook and cranny of his home. It led him, also, to refuse to publish his own works if he considered them unsatisfactory. His unpublished Life of Edward Jenner may well come into this category.

Though not an easy man to know intimately, Underwood was generous with his help to those who passed the acid test of his criticism. His personal interest in his staff, his practical help to them in an hour of need, were known to them alone. This concern for people was coupled with a deep knowledge and reverence for books. Perhaps less well known were his twin loves of music and mountain climbing - he learned the art of ‘scree-skiing’ at the age of 65.

A tragedy of the final years was failing eyesight, forcing him to leave incomplete a second volume of the history of the Society of Apothecaries, a history of urology, the papers of Edward Jenner and other writings. Music, the company of his dogs, visits from his two daughters and grandchildren, were his solace until he died at his home at Walton-on-Thames three days before his 81st birthday.

KD Keele
Margaret E Rowbottom

[Brit.med.J., 1980, 1, 948; Times, 8 Mar 1980; Obituary in Medical History, 1980,24, 349-352]

(Volume VII, page 584)

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