Lives of the fellows

David Nicholas Challacombe

b.22 June 1936 d.9 July 2006
MB BS Lond(1960) MRCS(1960) MRCP(1965) FRCP(1980) MD(1982) MRCPCH(1997) FRCPCH(2000)

David Challacombe was a consultant paediatrician in Taunton, where he was popular and esteemed among the local Somerset community, not only for providing a caring service, but also for his cricketing prowess. Unusually in a district general hospital, he also carried out high quality research into gastrointestinal problems and food allergies, in a specialist research unit which was mostly funded through his own untiring efforts, and which led to him giving a College regional lecture (entitled ‘Intestinal organ culture: sowing, reaping and gleaning’) in Manchester in 1995.

David was born in St Albans, but his father, Harold Bruce Challacombe, was an international telecommunications engineer, so much of his early life was spent overseas, particularly in India and Barbados. The cultural common denominator was cricket, and he developed a love for the game which was to last all his life. A visit to Lord’s for a test match against the West Indies two years before he died was memorable not only for the atmosphere and the pride with which he showed me around, but also for the spontaneous warmth and affection of the greeting he received from Viv Richards, who had known David well when he played for Somerset.

It was while the family were in India that David’s younger sister, Ann, died of gastroenteritis at the age of three, providing a strong motivation for David to become a doctor, and to specialise in paediatric gastroenterology.

David’s general education was at Truro School and Harrison College, Barbados. He studied medicine at King’s College, London, and gained his paediatric experience at Great Ormond Street, Bristol Royal Hospital for Sick Children and Birmingham Children’s Hospital, where he was a university lecturer in what was at that time the only academic paediatric department in the country which had a research programme in gastroenterology, under the leadership of Charlotte Anderson. With the help of an MRC scholarship, David’s research focused particularly on coeliac disease. He was appointed to Taunton as a consultant paediatrician in 1973, and in those days paediatricians were expected to cover the whole range of problems, from neonatology through all the system specialties.

In 1974, David was invited to become honorary doctor to Somerset County Cricket Club, an appointment which lasted for 12 years. During that time the team was in its heyday, with players such as Botham, Richards and Garner, and he was quickly recognised as a clubbable colleague, whose company was enjoyed and respected. Occasionally he played for the county in benefit matches, and he liked to recall the game at Axminster in 1975 when Viv Richards was unusually caught and bowled for 23 runs but ‘Challacombe, Slocombe and Rose kept the runs coming and Somerset were 135-6 at the end of their 25 overs’. One of his achievements, which might possibly have a greater impact than any other, was his persuading Ian Botham to raise funds to support childhood leukaemia research. Although he was very serious in professional matters, being hardworking, persistent and ambitious, his sense of humour was never far from the surface and often emerged in a chuckle which preceded an anecdote, often irreverent, sometimes scurrilous, and always very funny. Like many who have spent much time overseas, he had a deep love of this country and its institutions, but although he was temperamentally and politically conservative he was not deferential, and sometimes his sardonic comments on establishment figures were hilarious.

In addition to his demanding clinical work and his cricket, David pursued his research into coeliac disease and other food-related disorders with remarkable energy and effectiveness. He had shown, while in Birmingham, that the characteristic mood changes and lethargy seen in coeliac children responded to a gluten-free diet long before structural or functional abnormalities in the gut, and had linked this to a disturbance in serotonin metabolism. He set up a small research laboratory in a portakabin, which was officially opened in 1975, and raised funds by approaching local and national charities, pharmaceutical companies, clubs and pubs. Eleven years later, The Lancet commented that ‘a report of the first ten years and first 45 publications illustrates the success of the venture. It seems a pity that the enterprise and imagination of Dr Challacombe and his colleagues now has to depend entirely on the goodwill of the Avalon Ladies’ Skittles League, cider drinkers at the Windwhistle Inn, Cricket St Thomas, and the like.’ But continue it did, and David’s research unit studied a variety of food-related problems, including coeliac disease, food allergies, and migraine using epidemiological, histochemical and electronmicroscopic techniques. In 1994, based upon results of his intestinal organ culture studies, David wrote a letter to The Lancet drawing attention to possible carcinogenic effects of bovine somatotrophin given to cows and present in their milk. He was asked to present evidence to the House of Commons Agriculture and Health Select Committee, and also presented the evidence to the Veterinary Public Health Association.

By this time he was a senior doctor with an enviable record of achievement, and had done his fair share of local and regional committee work. His career had been played out against the background of a devoted and loving family, comprising his Australian wife Jan (married in 1963), son Andrew and daughter Emma. Like many of us from the same generation, he did not easily adapt to changing professional standards and responsibilities in the modern NHS, and retired slightly early as the new millennium began in 2000. His retirement years were less happy. A neurological illness left him sometimes frustrated and uncertain, and he lost some of his old ebullience, but in the company of friends more of the old David emerged, along with the chuckle. His terminal illness followed a fall, and an unsuspected subdural haematoma. A funeral service in Taunton followed by a reception at the county cricket ground drew an anticipated large attendance from among colleagues, and friends from many walks of life.

John A Dodge

[The Times 1 November 2006;Brit.med.J.,2006,333,974]

(Volume XII, page web)

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