Lives of the fellows

Henry Alexander Warner Forbes

b.1 May 1918 d.31 October 1999
BA Oxon(1940) BM BCh(1942) MA(1947) MRCP(1947) DM Lond(1952) FRCP(1969)

Note: the first obituary (below) was published in print form in Volume XI; the second was received after publication of the printed edition.

Henry Alexander Warner Forbes was a pioneer in the use of diet and alternative therapies at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre and a former consultant physician in Plymouth. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the son of Winifred and Herbert Forbes, and was educated at the Diocesan College in Mandeville. At the age of 12 he went to England, attending St Paul's School. He later studied medicine at Oxford University, where he won blues for rowing and rugby. After qualifying in 1942, he was briefly a house surgeon at West London Hospital, before joining the RAMC. He served as a regimental medical officer in the UK and West Africa, and was later a major in charge of a nutrition survey team in the Rhine.

After the war, he was a medical registrar at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, and then a senior registrar at the special unit for juvenile rheumatism at Taplow. From 1949 he was a senior registrar in general medicine at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. In 1952 he was appointed as a consultant physician at Plymouth.

He became interested in new approaches to health, studied Jungian and transpersonal psychology, and learnt about spiritual healing, which he practised. He came to believe that the mind and the spirit had to be considered in healing, and eventually resigned his post at Plymouth, and worked full-time as a volunteer at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. There he introduced a regimen based on a vegan diet, relaxation, meditation and spiritual healing. He lectured widely and encouraged the formation of natural health centres and voluntary cancer support groups.

He married Norah Wilson, in 1942, and they had a son and three daughters. After his first wife's death he married Beverley. He died as the result of an infection.

RCP editor

[Brit.med.J., 2000,320,123]

Alec Forbes was a consultant physician in the Plymouth hospitals for nearly 30 years, but after retirement became more widely known as the somewhat controversial medical director of the newly formed British Cancer Help Centre. In that role his qualities of originality of mind and willingness to endorse unconventional views were expressed with imagination and creativity.

Alec was born in Jamaica, where his father was an accountant to an American fruit company, but lost his life there in 1929 during a period of civil unrest. Alec came to England at the age of 12 and attended St Paul’s School, London. Here he was not only a bright pupil, but also an athlete, especially in rowing.

Consequently, on entering Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1937 to read medicine, he gained his blue for rowing as a member of the Oxford crew in his freshman year. Two years later he gained a second blue for rugby. As war had then started he took an accelerated medical training course at Oxford, qualifying in 1942. It was in that year that he married Norah Wilson. She was a chemistry graduate. Her family was of Scottish origin and her mother was one of the first women doctors to qualify in Britain. The first of their four children was born the following year. Alec joined the RAMC and was posted to Nigeria, where he later contracted a severe bilharzia infection which led to his being invalided from the service. He held the rank of major. Immediately after the war he joined a team making a nutritional survey of the civilian population in Germany, an indication of his lifelong interest in the role of nutrition in health and disease.

Back at Oxford he became a postgraduate student at the Radcliffe Hospital and was awarded his DM on a thesis on rheumatoid arthritis. After junior posts at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, he was appointed consultant physician to the Plymouth hospitals in 1952.

As a physician he took a deep interest in Jungian psychology and the influence of the mind on disease, particularly allergies. He was interested also in hypnosis, spiritual healing, Ayurvedic medicine and other philosophies, including the teachings of Gurdjieff. In his home his extensive and somewhat esoteric library bore witness to his wide ranging interests. He expressed his own philosophy in two small books written for his patients: Try being human (Berkhamsted, Langdon Books, 1973) and Try being healthy (Westbury, Langdon Books, 1976).

In his hospital work he was often impatient at much of the bureaucratic and committee work which seems inescapable and this sometimes led to criticism and friction with colleagues. Here Norah was helpful in exerting a calming influence. She was at all times his loyal supporter, especially in assisting in the promotion of his books and, later, in the development of his ideas in Bristol.

After some years, wanting to be free of the NHS and the demands of hospital work, he took early retirement in 1980 in order to join the Cancer Help Centre in Bristol which opened that year. Here he worked for four years without a salary as the centre’s first medical director. He introduced a holistic regime which was complementary to the orthodox treatment which the patients were already receiving. It reflected his view that cancer should be seen as a systemic disorder, needing treatment at all levels, of body, mind and spirit. The importance of nutrition was emphasised by a vegan style ‘detoxifying’ diet, with added vitamin and mineral supplements, and he was an early advocate for organic foods. The emotional shock of the diagnosis of cancer and the stresses it brought to the individual’s family and social life were fully recognised, and patients were given counselling and healing sessions and introduced to techniques of relaxation and meditation.

Alec’s introduction to these principles attracted widespread attention and drew in to the centre many therapists, healers and doctors. A television series brought additional publicity as well as some fierce criticism from the medical profession. If anything, Alec seemed to thrive on criticism, being fully convinced of the rightness of his views. Pat Pilkington, co-founder of the centre, has remarked that without Alec’s vision and drive the centre would never have survived those early years.

A high point was 1983, when Prince Charles came to open the Centre’s new premises in Grove House. But unhappily Norah was seriously ill and died in the following year. After this Alec left on a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand; liking it there, he resigned from the centre and settled in New Zealand, where he later remarried. Meanwhile he had written a further book on The Bristol diet (London, Century, 1984).

Subsequently, his health began to fail and he returned to England, eventually settling in Gloucestershire. In his final year he became seriously incapacitated by paralysis and was devotedly cared for by his second wife Beverley – a sad end for one who had been a considerable athlete in his youth.

To conventional eyes Alec was always a controversial figure, but his dedication to his ideals and his teaching won him many friends and admirers among his patients and his fellow professionals. He was much travelled and was in demand as a lecturer on aspects of holistic medicine and cancer treatment. He stimulated the formation of natural health centres and the formation of cancer support groups. In Bristol the Cancer Help Centre continues to follow the principles which he initially set out, seeing day patients and a small number of short-term resident patients. Its educational role has expanded considerably.

It is satisfying to note that come of the therapies that Alec introduced in the face of criticism are now adopted in many hospital cancer departments. This fact, and the continued existence of natural health centres and cancer support groups, which he initiated, form a fitting living memorial to a man of originality and vision.

John Cosh

(Volume XI, page web)

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