Lives of the fellows

Thurstan Berkeley Brewin

b.20 December 1921 d.25 February 2001
MB BS Lond(1949) MRCP(1951) FRCP(1977) DMRT FRCP Glasg FRCR

Thurstan Berkeley Brewin was a caring oncologist who specialised in communicating with cancer patients and their relatives. He had his tonsils removed at the age of eight, and described this in detail, writing as if he was already 'Dr T B Brewin'. He announced that he wished to become a doctor.

After preparatory school he went to Rugby School in 1935, where his first interests were music and rugby football. A year later his father suddenly died from pneumonia. He was never good at school exams and in 1939 enlisted in the army where he made a friend, John Richardson, who took him to meet his three sisters. The youngest, Doreen, only 14, made a lasting impression on him. They exchanged photographs and he decided he would like to marry her if he survived the war; they kept in touch.

Thurstan was recommended for officer training, and chose the Royal Armoured Corps. He was commissioned in June 1941, and went to North Africa to the 11th Hussars, becoming gunner in an armoured car. On 29th January 1942 this was shelled and he was wounded in the knee, taken prisoner and sent to Italy. Infection led to amputation. On crutches, he became prison librarian, and was fitted with a wooden leg. He again thought about becoming a doctor, met Oliver Ive from Guy's hospital and asked 'Can a man with one leg become a doctor?' the answer was 'Why not? I'll fix up an interview at Guy's'.

Repatriation came in April 1943. With Ive's help he was accepted for medical school in October. His first preoccupation was to see Doreen. In the meantime he gave talks in munitions factories and went to Roehampton to obtain the latest 'tin leg'. His walking improved, as did his cycling and driving!

His progress at medical school was rapid. Pre-medical studies at Tunbridge Wells finished by March 1946, and he married Doreen in the October. Clinical studies were enjoyed, and his first real publication appeared: 'Four cases of myxoma in the left auricle of the heart', in Guy's Hospital Reports in 1948.

Thurstan became a father in January 1949, and qualified as a doctor in June. His junior posts were all at Guy's. He spent the next two years at Lewisham Hospital, and he was successful at his first attempt at the MRCP in October 1951. He was prompted to become radiotherapy registrar in 1953 at Guy's, and the Westminster under Stanford Cade [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI. p.79], obtaining the diploma in medical radiotherapy in April 1954.

Existence on his NHS salary was not easy. Kenneth Newton, his chief, told him that a Westminster graduate in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, was looking for a second consultant; and the salary was three times that of Thurstan's; he was appointed. The family sailed to Canada in September 1956, where there were no shortages, and above all a car with automatic transmission. Although there was no NHS, there were state funded cancer centres with good equipment, time for research, and support for conferences. Thurstan had time to develop his interest in talking to patients; they stayed for four and a half years.

Britain still had attractions, and Thurstan's old chief at the Westminster told him about a consultant post at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He was appointed in April 1961 to begin the final part of his career, staying in Scotland for a productive 26 years.

I first knew him when I moved to Glasgow in 1966. He and Doreen could not have been more friendly to myself, a newcomer, and my wife. Thurstan never allowed his artificial leg to seem a handicap, however painful. He was first class in radiation oncology and also in communicating with patients and their relatives. He would tell the truth in the kindest way, give full detail of treatment and its effects, and foretell the future cheerfully. He taught this approach to junior staff and to medical students, emphasizing that it was necessary because most patients were frightened but needed to know the diagnosis because they usually suspected it already. They trusted him implicitly.

Thurstan' s special interest was research into the curious intolerance to alcohol, and other taste perversions, seen first with Hodgkin's disease and then in many other kinds of cancer. He studied these characteristics in over one thousand patients, and described them in journals.

He became deputy director of the Glasgow Cancer Centre in 1978, and director in 1985, retiring in 1986. He was editor of the Bulletin of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow for four years, member of council of the Royal College of Radiologists for six years and president of the Scottish Radiological Society and the Glasgow Psychosomatic Society. He was member of council of the Royal College of Radiologists from 1976, and examiner from 1978 to 1981.

He published two books: Relating to the relatives: breaking bad news, communication and support (Oxford, Radcliffe Medical Press, 1996) and The friendly professional - selected writings (Bognor Regis, Eurocommunica, 1996).

When Thurstan retired he had planned to stay in Glasgow with Doreen. In January 1986 she died from acute leukaemia. In spite of great sadness he did not permit this to affect his care for patients; but he moved to London. Remarkably he was still determined to remain fit and active and purchased a flat in Bray-on-Thames. He had been appointed medical director of the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation and took much interest in all their work. In 1990 he began to find walking and balance difficult and resigned. He visited Oxford for a neurosurgical operation and bought a sheltered flat there. His writing continued together with advice to the Sue Ryder Foundation and Health Watch. Two last publications appeared - one in The Lancet making fun of his artificial leg. He made new friends who were helped yet again by his cheerfulness.

In February 2001 he went to a seaside hotel, and was found dead next morning, having ended his life. He left a letter to his family: 'I hate to cause shock or distress, but I feel this is best". A memorial service was held in Oxford and a book of remembrance compiled.

Keith Halnan

(Volume XI, page 77)

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