Lives of the fellows

Raymond Dudley Blachford

b.1 October 1915 d.20 October 2002
MRCS LRCP(1938) MB BS Lond(1938) MRCP(1940) MD(1947) FRCP(1969)

A man of culture who served unobtrusively in a modest hospital, a man of integrity and sound judgement forced by tragic circumstances to be more of a loner than he might otherwise have been, a much loved doctor to his patients and mentor to his colleagues, dedicated to the National Health Service: that is the Ray Blachford we remember.

'Blach' - he was only on first-name terms with his family, never even with his closest friends - was the only child of South London parents, and was educated at Haileybury and Guy's Hospital. His house appointments were at Guy's, at the end of which he married Sally and war was declared on Germany. After two years as medical registrar at Charing Cross he entered the RAF as a medical specialist in 1941: there were two home postings and then he served for four years in Hong Kong. Back in England in 1946, more hospital appointments culminated in the post of consultant physician at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, which he held from 1949 until his retirement 30 years later.

His early consultant years coincided with the incorporation of the old municipal, ex-Poor Law hospitals into the NHS. He was the most junior of five physicians and that status was unchanged for 17 years. Five years after that, in 1970, he became senior physician. In the early years Birmingham (Selly Oak) Hospital Management Committee was also responsible for two ex-fever hospitals: Little Bromwich (now Birmingham Heartlands Hospital) and West Heath, and for several years he had general medical duties at Little Bromwich as well as Selly Oak.

Because of its Poor Law history, Selly Oak also had ten wards for 'the care of the chronic sick', a responsibility shared among all the physicians. As geriatricians were appointed and then as physicians retired, these wards were gradually handed over. When the main workhouse block was turned over to other uses in the late 1960s, its beds were replaced at West Heath. Ray Blachford worked there until 1975, keeping another 'chronic sick ward' at Selly Oak for a few years more. They were responsibilities he often said he enjoyed. At Selly Oak meanwhile, his main base, he had two general medical wards (also ex-workhouse) and developed the hospital's diabetic service.

But in 1957 his personal life had been utterly changed when Sally was killed in a road traffic accident. By then they had a family of four children (Geoffrey, Gillian, Isobel, Alison, aged between 16 and 3) who became his overwhelming preoccupation. Most of us who still remember him did not become his colleagues until eight or more years after that; we only knew what others told us, that the impact on him was unspeakable. In those later years he never spoke of it; it was just there, in the background, a dreadful piece of private history. He never remarried, and never gave the slightest sign of wanting another partner.

When asked, for example, by the College on nomination for Fellowship, he would say that his interests were music and poetry. In the hospital environment they usually went unmentioned, but every month or so he would approach someone and shyly ask, "Would you care to dine?" When guests arrived he would be at his baby grand piano, playing fluently: he also had a harpsichord. Dinner would be laid out impeccably; he would disappear to the kitchen from where, through an open door, guests would hear a running commentary on his last-minute preparations. With the help of carefully chosen wine he would talk of attending concerts in Birmingham or his annual pilgrimage to Glyndebourne. He would also talk poetry, literally reciting quantities of it from memory, often referring to meetings of Birmingham's literary society at which (we later learned) he sometimes presented papers. Other subjects of conversation would be science, philosophy or medical politics, and two in particular: gardening and his family.

His rather sudden 'promotion' from junior to senior physician had coincided with the Government's 'cogwheel' report (so nicknamed because of its cover design). Selly Oak's new division of medicine was rather small, but he chaired it and therefore became a member of the hospital management committee. It was a learning experience for him but what made it memorable - apart from his obvious competence - were his reports and comments on observing and learning the art of medical politics. Two examples stick in the mind: discovering the art of knowing whether he could give an opinion or felt obliged to consult colleagues first, and the plethora of changing plans for new hospital building. Of the latter he would say he no longer knew the kind of hospital he was supposed to be approving. Above all, he successfully brought medical and management staff into lasting partnership.

Throughout his career he remained devoted to the NHS, never seeking any kind of private practice. He practised medicine to impeccable standards, helped by wide reading and his deep understanding of the humanities. He always supported and encouraged his junior staff; he was companionable and quick-witted, a shrewd contributor and critic at clinical meetings. Secular and non-partisan in politics, he did once prophesy that after Mrs Thatcher became prime minister there would be rioting in the streets. After he retired it was unusually common for patients to enquire after him, saying how much they had appreciated his kindness and help in the past.

In retirement, besides the family, his main interest became his three-quarter acre garden, which, with great pride, he planted and maintained himself. His interests were those of a plantsman, especially in shrubs and special roses. There were two or three West Midlands commercial gardens where he got to know the owners, buying plants from them, but also supplying them now and again. He went on attending weekly grand rounds at Selly Oak and reading the BMJ, but otherwise severed contact with medicine. Renal carcinoma was diagnosed about 15 months before his death - typically he recovered after surgery but later developed metastases.

After he died, volumes of his own poetry were discovered on his bookshelves as well as a poetry library of some distinction. A large proportion of his poems were written to, for, or about Sally.

John Harrison

[Brit.med.J.,2003,326,108]

(Volume XI, page 60)

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