Lives of the fellows

James Gardener Sommerville

b.11 November 1920 d.8 April 2005
MB ChB Edin(1943) MD(1958) MRCP(1969) FRCP(1978)

Jimmy Sommerville was a pioneer of medical rehabilitation. He received a merit award for his work and the Camden Road Medical Rehabilitation Centre, which he directed for 26 years, was made a demonstration centre by the Department of Health, one of only ten such centres which were deemed examples of particularly good practice.

Jimmy was educated at George Watson's Boys College in Edinburgh. After qualifying at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh he became house surgeon to Sir James Learmonth and then held senior house posts while waiting to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

In 1944 he became a flying officer and served in Fighter Command until a knee injury sent him to the Medical Rehabilitation Unit at Loughborough. There he met Jamie O'Malley and was introduced to the network of rehabilitation units set up by the RAF, because the cost of training aircrew was so high that it was an economical necessity to put resources into getting them fit to fly again as quickly as possible. He became a flight lieutenant and was posted to three other medical rehabilitation units before becoming a squadron leader with responsibility for converting and opening a unit at Collaton Cross.

After demobilisation in 1947 he returned to Edinburgh as clinical assistant to Sir James Learmonth and then became assistant medical superintendent at the Astley Ainslie Hospital. In 1954 he was invited by Jamie O'Malley to become deputy medical director of a non-residential medical rehabilitation centre that he was setting up in London, using similar techniques to those used by the RAF during the war to rehabilitate civilians and get them back to work speedily after injury. When O'Malley died in 1958, Jimmy became medical director, retiring in 1984.

He was the ideal doctor to lead and co-ordinate a team of members of the remedial professions who worked closely together. They treated up to 90 patients a day, five days a week, some in groups and some individually. The aim was to get the majority of patients so fit that they were discharged on a Friday to return to work on the following Monday. If a patient told him that his solicitor had advised not returning to work until his case was settled, Jimmy would write suggesting that this must be a misunderstanding and would the solicitor please correct this since the patient was now fit for work. Probably because of his RAF background he had an informal approach to his staff. He understood exactly what all the therapists could offer and conducted democratic weekly meetings which reviewed every patient's progress, including feedback from students as well as staff, so that a team consensus was reached. He was a good listener and made everyone feel that their contribution was valuable. He had a clear vision of what he wanted, was enthusiastic, trusted his staff and in turn they trusted him.

Because of his expertise in rehabilitation, in 1960 Jimmy was invited to become medical director of Farnham Park Rehabilitation Centre, appointing deputies there and at Camden Road. Farnham Park had been set up by an ex-Army doctor as part of the Slough Industrial Health Service to enable people working in the many local factories in Slough to get fit for work more quickly, but had expanded to take patients from London and referrals from a hand and an orthopaedic surgeon who needed specialized treatment for their patients. Farnham Park was initially run on regimental lines with only the heads of departments reporting to the medical director, but Jimmy changed all this and became far more involved, for example in establishing industrial outwork in the occupational therapy department.

In 1964 he was invited by Sir Wylie McKissock to plan the Wolfson Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Wimbledon, producing a brief, drawing up plans, helping equip and staff this first custom built centre in the UK. It was attached to Atkinson Morley's Hospital and was built to offer a rehabilitation programme to patients following brain damage and other neurological conditions. Jimmy's contribution was invaluable, both to the neurosurgeon Alan Richardson, the first director of the centre, and to the staff. His relaxed approach and ability to listen and consider every point of view put forward by the multi-disciplinary staff enabled anxieties and possible areas of friction to be talked through and resolved calmly and with good humour. This resulted in the development of excellent team work both in the planning stage and when the Centre opened.

In addition to his clinical work he was involved with many organisations promoting rehabilitation. He was chairman of the British Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled and led it into the amalgamation with the Central Council for the Disabled, to form the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation in 1977, later becoming its chairman. He was consultant in rehabilitation to Queen Elizabeth's Foundation for Disabled People and after his retirement became a governor of the Foundation. He was an excellent chairman and committee member, always in control of the situation, encouraging other members to contribute and providing calm and sound advice. He was always ready to talk with disabled people, meeting them on equal terms and treating them with a respect that was much less common in the 1960s and 1970s.

In retirement it was a great disappointment to him that almost all the medical rehabilitation centres have been closed down, that patients are now very rarely treated in groups (which enabled far more to be treated) and there are not enough therapists or centres to treat the less serious cases who consequently take much longer to regain normal function. He used to comment on the number of people with total hip replacements still walking 'like crabs' who would have benefited so much from a period of intensive treatment in a medical rehabilitation centre.

He was survived by his wife Marjorie, a son, daughter and four grandchildren.

Peggy Jay

(Volume XII, page web)

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