Lives of the fellows

Alex Sakula

b.26 June 1917 d.27 December 2003
MRCS LRCP(1940) MB BS Lond(1940) MRCP(1941) MD Lond(1942) FRCP(1971) DHMSA(1978)

Alex Sakula was a physician with a special interest in respiratory medicine, based from 1956, until he retired in 1982, at Redhill General Hospital, Surrey, and Crawley and Horsham hospitals in Sussex. He also had an abiding and remarkably productive interest in the history of medicine, a fascination that was longstanding, but flowered most fully after he retired. Vivid interpretations of biographical sources were his forte.

Alex was the third child of immigrants from Poland who came to London in 1900. He grew up in the Jewish East End, where his father was a master tailor working in the garret of the house they rented in Whitechapel. At 13, Alex won a scholarship to Davenant Foundation School, the local grammar school with a large intake of bright Jewish boys. Long afterwards he surmised that his daily walk to and from school through the precincts of the London Hospital, among convalescent patients and nurses in smart attire, perhaps sparked his first resolve to study medicine. He gained a Meyerstein scholarship after entering the Middlesex Hospital Medical School from school and subsequently became a Broderip scholar. His elder brother Jack [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.517] also won an entrance scholarship to the Middlesex and in due course became a distinguished paediatrician at the Central Middlesex Hospital.

After qualifying in 1940 with a distinction in medicine, Alex was appointed house physician to Alec Cooke at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. In My first 75 years of medicine (London, Royal College of Physicians, 1994) Alec Cooke told of his refusal to accede to a request by Howard Florey to test penicillin, previously untried in humans, on patients for whom he was personally responsible; Cooke had first asked Florey whether he had given penicillin to himself. Nevertheless, while he was at the Radcliffe, Alex Sakula did witness the miraculous response of some of the first ever patients to receive penicillin for life-threatening infections, administered by Charles Fletcher [Munk's Roll, Vol. X, p.146] when he was Nuffield research scholar. Within two years of qualification, while in various junior posts, Alex gained both an MD by examination and became a member of the College.

From 1944 to 1947, he served with the rank of major as a medical specialist in the RAMC in India, Burma, Thailand and Malaya. In 1945, at the end of the war with Japan, he was posted for three months to a jungle hospital on the river Kwai with responsibility for recently released prisoners of war and internees. Forty years later he recalled this experience in a paper entitled 'The bridge on the river Kwai: medical reminiscences of 1945'.

Alex returned to civilian life at the inception of the NHS. His appointment as a house physician at the Brompton Hospital, some eight years after he qualified, reflected his determination to pursue a career with emphasis on diseases of the chest. For several years he then worked as an assistant physician at Kingston Chest Clinic, whence he was appointed consultant physician in 1956 with charge of chest services at Redhill General Hospital, Crawley and Horsham hospitals.

With his alert and prepared mind, Alex quickly responded to unusual clinical cases and situations. In 1961 he reported two cases of pneumoconiosis due to Fuller's earth. In the same year, when a volcanic eruption on the remote Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha led to the evacuation of the population of 268 islanders to Pendell camp in Surrey, Alex carried out a complete tuberculin and radiographic survey. In 1967, he described for the first time in Britain several cases of a condition akin to farmer's lung, which he recognised in mushroom-growers in Sussex - the recommendations he made virtually eliminated mushroom-worker's lung.

Early in his medico-historical studies Alex concentrated particularly on pioneers of thoracic medicine, such as Laënnec, Auenbrugger, Skoda and Koch, to name a few. In his Fitzpatrick Lecture in 1987, on the history of asthma, he gave a lucid account of the main contributors to the understanding of asthma. At about the same time, on a domiciliary consultation in Betchworth in Surrey, Alex made an important serendipitous discovery of the Betchworth portraits of members of the Harvey family; by dint of shrewd and painstaking detective work he subsequently provided new information about relatives of William Harvey. His later contributions, more numerous than ever, tended to be on diverse and eclectic subjects. Whether given as talks or published as learned papers, their titles were often intriguing and enticing. To cite a small sample, who could resist becoming authoritatively informed on 'Langhans and Langerhans: two men and their cells', 'The song of the squirt', 'Augustus Bozzi Granville (1783-1873), London physician-accoucheur, an Italian patriot', 'Baroness Burdett-Coutts' garden party', 'Dr Nehemiah Grew (1642-1712) and the Epsom salts', 'Gentlemen of the hammer: British medical geologists in the 19th century' and 'The Schomberg affair'?

Alex's medico-historical expositions, aimed mainly at doctors and reflecting his own scholarly enthusiasms and thoroughness, amounted to over 80 publications. The secondary sources on which they were based were often relatively little known and sometimes only accessible in a foreign tongue. He lectured clearly, authoritatively and often without recourse to notes. In debate he usually had the last word.

Genial and gregarious, Alex thrived in the milieu of medico-historical societies and organisations in London and elsewhere. He identified himself most closely with the Osler Club of London, the section of the history of medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine and the faculty of the history and philosophy of medicine and pharmacy of the Society of Apothecaries, in each of which he held office as president. He was also a member of other medico-historical societies, including several abroad, in the USA, France and Japan. He was the author of Portraits, paintings and sculptures (London, Royal Society of Medicine [Great Britain], c1988). As a founder member of its editorial board, he particularly valued his association with the Journal of Medical Biography.

In 1989, Alex and his wife Rene, who also grew up in the East End, moved to Hove and lived near the sea. Despite adversities in the form of diabetes, glaucoma, blindness and then a stroke, his remarkable memory remained unimpaired, he retained his zest and he even continued to contribute short papers to journals. He is survived by Rene, three sons and a daughter.

Denis Gibbs

[Brit.med.J.,2004 328 409]

(Volume XII, page web)

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