Lives of the fellows

Denis Hubert Brinton

b.9 December 1902 d.13 March 1986
MRCS LRCP(1927) BM BCh Oxon(1928) MRCP(1929) DM(1937) FRCP(1938)

Denis Hubert Brinton was born at Eton, where his father was classics master and later a housemaster. His mother, Dorothea Bowman, was the daughter of a solicitor. He died at his home in Burley on the edge of the New Forest which he loved, cared for in his last illness by his wife Rosemary and a devoted family doctor; exactly as he wished.

As befitted his paternal genes, his birth place and his alma mater, he was given a classical education in two senses, style and content. His preparatory school was Summerfields at Oxford, followed by a return to Eton, thence back to Oxford, New College, where he read classics before turning to medicine to follow his grandfather, William Brinton, also a Fellow of the College in his time [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.74]. Sadly, this broad high road to doctoring has become a rarity, by-passed by pragmatic narrower lanes. He went to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School with a university scholarship in 1925, to win student prizes in hygiene, psychological medicine and forensic medicine. He took his Oxford final degrees in 1928, became a member of the College a year later, gained his doctorate in 1937 and was elected Fellow in 1938.

His younger brother Wilfred (q.v.), who died before him, became a consultant physician in Winchester after training at Guy’s. So Eton, not a traditional nursery for medical science, reared two distinguished doctors from the same Brinton generation.

Brinton married twice; by his first wife Joan Violet Hood, daughter of a South Wales mine owner, he had two sons. The elder became Conservative member of Parliament for Gravesham. The younger died as a schoolboy at Eton during the last war. A second bitter blow struck when his first wife came to an untimely death. He was fortunate in finding great comfort and happiness in a second marriage, to someone he knew well and had worked with as dean, Rosemary Cockerill. He was a man who needed love and companionship to supplement an innate privacy. Both wives gave it to the full.

His junior hospital appointments included house physician to the medical unit at St Mary's under its first professor. Langmead, and at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square. Later he became registrar to both hospitals in their turn. He was appointed to the consultant staff of both hospitals in the same year - 1935. This greatly prized double appointment gave the widest experience in neurology; the intrinsic and rare at the Neurological Institute and the more commonplace, associated with disease outside the system, at the general teaching hospital.

By the outbreak of war in 1939 it might have seemed that here was a fully finished young neurologist but, as with so many of his peers, war service added unusual professional experience and a deeper understanding of his fellows that was to be invaluable. He served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve from 1939-45, as a so-called neuropsychiatrist, a title with as many interpretations as it has syllables, which always brought a wry smile to his lips. Most of his time in the Air Force was spent in the Middle East where he was mentioned in despatches. He gained the rank of air commodore. It was typical of the quality of his mind and his great interest in natural science, particularly ornithology, that he grasped two incidents that came his way by chance during those years. The first, an epidemic of meningococcal meningitis which later was to be the basis of a book published by E&S Livingstone, Cerebrospinal Fever, 1941. The other, an outburst of a mysterious acute neurological disease the cause of which he traced to the adulteration of wheat by poisonous tares. He rediscovered a phenomenon that had been known in those lands since Biblical times.

Within months of return to civilian life he was invited by his colleagues at St Mary’s to undertake a task that needed delicacy at first, mediation later and resource throughout; an appointment for which he had a remarkable amalgam of gifts, unusual not so much in their quality and number as that they were collected in one man. He was asked to become dean. There was need for change. The transition from brilliantly successful servant to despot takes time. Brinton’s predecessor had had that, perhaps in part due to an understandable academic inertia in time of war. Praiseworthy steadfastness had become stubborn agnosia of the senses that tell a man when he has outlived his office. The depth of the tyranny to be overcome was measured by the fact that a plot was necessary for its removal.

Denis Brinton’s particular contribution to the School and hospital was forged during his five years as dean. He was pressed to stay longer but was more mindful of the circumstances of his election than those who put him there. He stood by his own dictum, five years at least, and no more than seven. His introduction to the job was made more formidable by the presence of a complacent student body, used to undisciplined ease by an administration believing in self determination. There was much to do. Replacement of administrative muddle by method, the introduction of democracy, decision by consensus, open government, stiffer discipline, a tutorial system, a refurbished curriculum and other devices toward balanced excellence were hurtful to those who had to shift. Luckily the entry of mature students from war service saw the virtue of the changes and made them prosper. Liking for order made him a good administrator, not a love of bureaucracy of which he had none. Distaste for unnecessary and repetitive propositioning of the University led him to be a founder member of the Association of Metropolitan Deans, where medical schools’ linen might be washed in decent privacy and ironed for understanding and approval. His experience in choice of medical students, and his delight in a worldwide follow up, led to the 1951 Bradshaw Lecture at the College, ‘The selection of medical students'.

The School’s affairs were not the only target for concern and renovation. The National Health Service was born a year after the new dean took office. It brought as many recalcitrant curses as good wishes. Doctors are renowned for seeing the unique relationships in their work as an inviolate recommendation for the status quo. The preservation of the teaching hospital autonomy by the survival of the old Board of Governors did little to ease their new irksome harness and inflamed resentment from local hospitals without such cover; hospitals that had been commanded by the Department of Health to come under St Mary’s wing.

Brinton’s qualities then became apparent. His clear mind, eye and ear for excellence, logical exposition, firm but diplomatic resolve and, most of all, his example, allowed him to choose the best even of a bad lot, to propose, debate, find agreement and implement. No one could doubt his altruism, lack of prejudice except for quality, and overt honesty. He had humour without malice. People were persuaded not against their better judgement but because of it. St Mary’s were lucky at that time in having two men working in harmony and mutual regard in positions that then, and even sometimes now, were thought to be divided by a fence of prejudice; Brinton and George Pickering [Munk's Roll, Vol. VII p.464] the second holder of the University chair of medicine. By virtue of their individual excellence, each could see in the other the need for both aspects of medical practice and teaching by the full-time academic and the part-time servant of the NHS. They saw that they were complementary, and the absurdity of separating them. This view percolated to the staff generally and brought a benignity that enhanced the School's well-being and reputation. After Pickering’s departure to Oxford his place in this productive team was amply filled by Stanley Peart.

Brinton’s personal taste was not for what is usually implied by medical science or even clinical science. Both these are given a too narrow interpretation. If science is thought to represent careful and precise obervation, then he applied it to bedside neurology as is shown by his publications, modest in number but not in content. His exactitude did not prevent a warm sympathy and understanding for his patients.

Brinton might persuade with elegance and charm but he was a reluctant communicant about himself. One had to learn about him from observation, by piecing together occasional scraps of revelation and gradually working them into a portrait; of a man with high standards of living and behaviour from which he never departed, and of practice which he taught by modest precept and few words. The picture of an old fashioned gentleman, but not outmoded. One met people who disagreed with him in the particular, those whose ethics might look shabby by his. some who envied him for the apparent ease of a patrician career, others made uneasy by his several exemplary achievements - but no one who disliked him. He sought intimate friendship rarely outside his family but gained strength from it, of the kind he found in unostentatious religious belief and practice.

His services outside the common run were invited widely. He accepted few because he never saw himself in the rare image he truly was. However, Archbishop Fisher pressed him into membership of his Commission on Divine Healing, 1953-58. What more appropriate person? An open mind capable of logical argument in the handling of evidence, paying tribute to science basic to medical orthodoxy and yet needing no reminder that man does not live by bread alone, too wise to denounce the cure but contemptuous of pseudo-scientific claims, preferring a belief in the power of mind.

Brinton had the gift to procure the best out of those he worked with and for, as well as calling for a high level of probity from himself.

CH Edwards

[Brit.med.J., 1986,292,1743;293,214; Lancet, 1986,1,1047; The Times, 31 Mar 1986; St. Mary’s Hosp. Gaz., 1972,78,7; 1964,70]

(Volume VIII, page 45)

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