Lives of the fellows

Sheila Mary Howarth

b.17 March 1920 d.31 July 2000
MB BS Lond(1943) MRCS LRCP(1943) MRCP(1966) FRCP(1973)

For the last 16 years of her professional life, Sheila Howarth was principal medical officer at the Medical Research Council. In that capacity she played a major role in promoting and guiding the development of clinical research in the United Kingdom and in areas of British influence overseas. Earlier in her career she had herself been actively involved in research, most notably in the field of circulatory dynamics. Through her marriages she bore in succession two of the honoured names of British twentieth century medicine - those of Sharpey-Schafer and McMichael.

Sheila Mary Howarth was born and brought up on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines, attending Hebdon Bridge Grammar School (where her father was headmaster). Despite her lifelong exile from that county, she always regarded herself as a typical Yorkshire woman. Her subsequent (wartime) education was at University College London, Sheffield University and the wartime UCL Medical School at Leatherhead, followed by clinical training at University College Hospital and its sector hospitals in Watford. As a student she was particularly influenced by David Smyth, who was then working on the circulation, and by Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.531].

After qualifying in 1943, she took an initial house appointment at UCH, afterwards moving to the Hammersmith Hospital as house physician to John McMichael [Munk's Roll, Vol.IX, p.341]. Here her interest in and aptitude for research were quickly recognised, with the result that she joined the pioneering cardiac catheterization team of McMichael and Peter Sharpey-Schafer [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.372] and at the same time worked with Otto Edholm [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.141] on problems of the peripheral circulation. Sheila thus participated in one of the most exciting and fruitful periods of cardiovascular research, when new methods of clinical investigation were elucidating the disordered anatomy and the haemodynamics of acquired and congenital heart disease in parallel with and in support of the developing techniques of cardiac surgery.

In 1947, with financial backing from the Medical Research Council, Sheila moved back to UCL to continue her research career in the laboratory of Sir Charles Lovatt Evans [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.166]. Two years later she accepted an invitation from Paul Wood [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.456], then beginning to dominate the London cardiology scene, to bring her investigative skills to his team at the National Heart Hospital and Institute of Cardiology. Here she remained, as senior research fellow, until 1955.

There followed period of domesticity, in which Sheila (who in 1949 had married Peter Sharpey-Schafer) devoted herself to family matters and cultivated her many outside interests, particularly gardening and music. Sadly, Sharpey-Schafer, then professor of medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, died prematurely in 1963. Sheila needed a new outlet for her energies and the following year she joined the headquarters staff of the Medical Research Council under the then secretary and executive head Sir Harold Himsworth [Munk's Roll, Vol.IX, p.238]. She quickly rose through the MRC hierarchy to become principal medical officer and head of the division responsible for clinical research. She remained in this position until her retirement (at the obligatory civil service age of 60) at the end of 1980.

Sheila was hardworking and conscientious, setting high standards both for herself and for others. Her manner of speech was forthright to the point of bluntness; and in the hierarchical culture of the MRC office she could appear a formidable figure to her juniors. In fact she was a woman of great compassion, as any of her colleagues who encountered health or other problems soon came to realise. To many she became a loyal and trusted friend.

In 1965 Sheila had married her old colleague and friend Sir John McMichael, continuing with him to live in the lovely Lutyens house in Hampstead Garden Suburb she had shared with Sharpey-Schafer. After her retirement, she was able to enjoy her many interests outside medicine. However the pleasant tenor of her life was shattered for a second time in September 1982 when McMichael suffered a devastating stroke and became thereafter a severely disabled invalid requiring constant nursing care. With the assistance of part-time agency nurses and the support of her friends, Sheila became a devoted carer for more than seven years until the domestic situation eventually became insupportable and long-stay institutional care could no longer be resisted. McMichael was admitted to a nursing home near Oxford, to which Sheila commuted regularly until his death in the spring of 1993 at the age of 88.

Once again Sheila was able to resume her active life, which she did with renewed vigour. Her main interests were gardening, music and travel. She played the piano with enthusiasm and regularly attended dress rehearsals at London's two opera houses. With a group of like-minded friends she was a frequent traveller to areas of the world of archaeological interest, in between journeys arranging meetings of her companions in their homes to compare notes and photographs. She was proud of the charming garden attached to her Hampstead house, which she largely tended herself, and was always willing to share her botanic and horticultural erudition. Her prodigious memory remained intact despite advancing years, and as she had personally known most of the significant figures in medicine on both sides of the Atlantic, her literary services were often in demand by those responsible for the production of biographical and historical memoirs.

As Sheila had been born on St Patrick's Day in the final year of a decade, her friends never had any difficulty remembering either her age or the date of her birthday. When they celebrated her eightieth in 2000, they were delighted to note that her mental and physical powers seemed relatively untouched by the years. Her sudden final illness, associated with an overwhelming attack of pneumonia, only a little more than four months later therefore came as a surprise, and caused great sadness.

Griff Owen

[Brit.med.J., 2000,321,964]

(Volume XI, page 276)

<< Back to List