Lives of the fellows

John de Swiet

b.2 May 1914 d.10 August 2001
MB BS Lond(1937) MRCS LRCP MD MRCP(1940) FRCP(1969)

John de Swiet was an outstanding consultant general physician of the old school. His formidable intellect made up for his lack of emotional engagement with patients and colleagues.

John was the only son of George and Lydia Swietochowski. His father had emigrated from Poland and was a successful general practitioner in Paddington and founder of the Polish Medical Society of London. John himself went to school locally at Colet Court preparatory school and then to St Paul's school. As the child of an immigrant he did not fit comfortably into any of the social groups of an English public school but he won prizes for classics. Despite his initial classical training he decided to follow his father's career and entered St Mary's medical school. Nevertheless because of his outstanding memory he was able to quote from classical texts throughout his life.

His father played the violin and he shared this interest in classical music. As a student in London he was a constant visitor to concert halls and opera houses. At the end of his life music was his only pleasure. He was passionately fond of romantic piano music, particularly Chopin; despite this he found it hard to come to terms with his Polish background. In 1935 he decided to change his name to de Swiet because he was annoyed by the difficulty that English people had pronouncing Swietochowski.

After qualifying John was appointed to the prestigious post of house physician to the medical unit at St Mary's Hospital where he came under the influence of Sir George Pickering [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.464]. During subsequent junior hospital posts at Harefield and Staines he wrote Essentials for final examinations in medicine (London, J & A Churchill, 1941), a popular cramming textbook which ran to four editions and was spoken of with affection even in the 1970s by those who had qualified in the 1940s.

In 1940 John married Mary Marguerite Smith, a physiotherapist he had met at St Mary's Hospital. Their only child Michael was born in 1941. Sadly, Marguerite suffered a severe postnatal psychiatric illness that left her with recurrent problems.

In 1942 John was called up and joined the RAMC. He served with the 14th Army in West Africa and India, particularly in Assam and in Burma. He had a very bad war. He was away from home for four years and felt extreme isolation. Very rarely could he bring himself to talk about this time and his horror of capture by the Japanese, which he narrowly escaped, was evidently based on his near-miss experiences.

Jobs were hard to come by on demobilization and John took the first that was offered to him: consultant physician at Llanelly General Hospital, a post he started in 1946. He was miserable there. It was a cold winter and the standard of living in immediate post-war Wales was no better than the rest of the UK. John was the first consultant physician to be appointed at Llanelly. Support services were minimal. He did not adapt easily to life in west Wales, which was very different from the cosmopolitan émigré circle in London where he grew up.

His talents craved an academic environment and so throughout his career in Llanelly he tried to move back to London or even overseas. Eventually he was appointed consultant physician at East Glamorgan Hospital at the foot of the valleys outside Cardiff, nearer London and nearer the teaching hospital environment of the Welsh National School of Medicine. He remained at East Glamorgan Hospital until his retirement in 1979.

He was always interested in cardiology but as he had no formal specialist training he was limited to what could be deduced from clinical methods, simple radiology and the ECG. He always maintained his academic interests and described studies that could be performed using the relatively simple tools available to him. Following retirement at age 65 he led a secluded life and died of stroke aged 87. He is survived by his wife and son, also a Fellow of the College.

Michael de Swiet

[Brit.med.J., 2001,323, 812]

(Volume XI, page 151)

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