Lives of the fellows

Richard Erskine Bonham Carter

b.27 August 1910 d.18 December 1994
MRCS LRCP( 1936) MRCP(1938) MB Bchir Cantab(1940) FRCP(1950)

As a paediatric cardiac specialist at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, Dick Bonham Carter was a pioneer in the clinical care of children with heart problems. He was born in Poltalloch, Argyllshire, although the family house was in Hertfordshire until the early 1920s. In his early life a great deal of his time was spent in Scotland, either at Poltalloch, where there would be large family gatherings, or at the cottage on Loch Sween, which had been given to his mother when she was a young woman. To the end of his life Dick loved to be at the cottage, walking, sailing, fishing and later all the family holidays would be spent there.

He was an accomplished athlete, playing cricket for his school at Clifton and for Peterhouse at Cambridge and gaining a blue at Cambridge for the long jump, besides being a very active skier.

After reading natural sciences at Cambridge, he did his clinical studies at St Thomas’s, qualifying in 1936 and obtaining his membership of the College in 1938. He was house physician and then casualty officer at Thomas’s and remained indeed always very much of a Thomas’s man. In 1938 he moved to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, as house physician and, after that, as resident assistant physician. This kindled the interest in children’s medicine which led to his becoming one of the leading general paediatricians of his day, and later a pioneering child cardiologist.

Memories of him in this period are of a person socially and clinically sure of himself and very competent and confident, always kind and always ready to help a junior, and always fun. There was never any question as to who was in charge in the mess though that did not mean that wild games were not played in the evenings, with Dick in the lead.

At the outbreak of war he worked in the emergency medical services for a while, but in 1940 moved to the Ministry of Health to help organize medical services for children evacuated from London. In 1942 he became medical officer and then deputy assistant director of medical services with 1st Airborne Division, rising to the rank of major and serving in North Africa, Sicily and Italy with 4th Parachute Brigade. He was mentioned in despatches during the tragic Arnhem landing when he was made a prisoner of war. Dick did not talk about this period, except to complain half humorously that the training for safe parachute landing was responsible for his bad back.

After the war he returned to Great Ormond Street as assistant to Sir Alan Moncrieff [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.343] in the fledging Institute of Child Health. In 1947 he was appointed consultant physician to the hospital and in 1948 consultant physician in the childrens department of University College Hospital, retiring from the latter in 1966 in order to concentrate his energies on his cardiac work.

At UCH Bonham Carter worked closely with Bernard Schlesinger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.441], his senior colleague, and formed a firm friendship with John Nixon, professor of obstetrics, which enabled him to introduce innovations not found at that time on obstetric wards; these included the presence of fathers at delivery and rooming-in for the new-born babies with their mothers. He was also successful in promoting academic paediatric posts at UCH for the first time, an important advance for research and training.

At Great Ormond Street Bonhams interest in children’s heart defects had developed early, but perhaps crystallised with the appointment of David Waterston as consultant surgeon. The two of them made an enduring partnership: the plumber and, as Bonham said of himself, the plumber’s mate. In 1954 they established the cardio-thoracic unit with six beds, the first in the country to be devoted entirely to the diagnosis and treatment of children with heart and lung disorders. The technical success of this, together with Bonham’s determination and his perseverance in demanding and obtaining funds from the Ministry of Health, persuaded the hospital to increase greatly the size of the unit. He had some notable battles with the nursing administration, which did not take kindly to frequent demands for increasing numbers of their best staff to be diverted to the thoracic unit. The success of the unit and the personalities of Bonham and Waterston attracted an increasing number of young doctors and surgeons from all parts of the world. These are now their successors, and have been responsible for the cardiac unit becoming an internationally recognized leader in paediatric cardiology.

Bonham Carter’s research interests were entirely clinical and, although he could not be described as research minded, he certainly encouraged, inspired and selected juniors who developed the research potential of the cardiac unit. The number of papers published by the department increased from two or three a year in the fifties to at least fifteen in the early seventies. He was an excellent lecturer, clear, concise and always spoke with that element of humour which so endeared him to his juniors.

An excellent memory, extensive reading and wide experience gave him an enormous fund of knowledge. He had a great sense of fun and a slightly sardonic sense of humour which flavoured all the many tales he told. It was perhaps his total lack of pomposity and his ability to treat all alike which most impressed those who worked for him. He always looked slightly crumpled, even in his newest suit, because appearances meant nothing to him. The story is told of the visiting bigwig, used to more self-important specialists, who was astonished when Dick happened to mention his brother, the admiral.

He was a truly modest man, whose happiness was in his family life; it has been rightly said that he extended his family to cover all those with whom he worked, the children and their parents, nurses, doctors and domestic staff. He and Margaret Stace were married in 1946 and their three daughters were a source of great pride and joy to him. The Bonham Carters’ hospitality, first in their flat in Hampstead and then in Torrington Park, leave memories of many happy times, especially perhaps of the great fireworks parties in which Dick delighted.

Unhappily his later years were clouded by increasing disability from chronic back pain, although he persisted in patient work for the Samaritans, and then from the pain in his legs, and the loss of a leg, due to thrombo-angiitis obliterans. Unable to visit his beloved cottage at Achnamara, he was virtually immobilized, bearing himself in the manner he had conducted his life, uncomplaining and with that gentle humour he had always shown.

A P Norman

[, 1995,310,1464; The Independent, 20 Feb 1995; Times, 17 Jan 1995]

(Volume X, page 41)

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