Lives of the fellows

Ronald Haxton Girdwood

b.19 March 1917 d.25 April 2006
CBE(1984) MB ChB Edin(1939) MRCP Edin(1941) MRCP(1944) FRCP Edin(1945) PhD(1952) MD(1954) FRCP(1956) FRCPath(1964) FRSE(1978) Hon FACP(1983) Hon FRCPI(1984) Hon FRACP(1985)

Ronnie Girdwood will have a special place in the history of medicine in Edinburgh. In addition to running a busy clinical department, as professor of therapeutics in Edinburgh, with heavy teaching and research commitments, he was dean of the faculty of medicine and president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He was born in Arbroath and educated at Daniel Stewart’s College, Edinburgh. His father, Thomas, was a pharmacist and the family could be traced back through eight generations to Carnwath in Lanarkshire. His mother, Elizabeth Stewart Haxton, came from an engineering family in Dundee and was distantly related to David Hackston of Rathillet, Fife, a Covenanter and commander of forces opposing the King, who was captured and cruelly executed in 1679. Ronnie’s father died of tuberculosis at the age of 49, leaving the family business in financial straits. Ronnie was admitted to medical school in Edinburgh in 1934 and was the most distinguished graduate of his year, collecting many class prizes and medals.

When war was declared he volunteered for service and was eventually enlisted in the RAMC. He was sent to India and soon became involved in research into malnutrition and a form of severe anaemia associated with diarrhoea and glossitis which affected the British and Indian troops. This was tropical sprue and he managed to get authority to write his own movement orders to travel widely in the country in search of the cause. He found megaloblastic changes in the bone marrow and treated his patients with blood transfusion and injections of crude liver extract which he had sent out from England. The town of Sirajguni on the west bank of the Brahamaputra river in east India (now Bangladesh) became his base as it was a focal point for troops and casualties passing to and from the fighting front. He also treated Japanese prisoners of war and later returning allied prisoners of war with malnutrition and blindness after their release from Japanese prisoner of war camps. He met Mary Williams of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service there in January 1945 and they were married six months later in Calcutta. After the cessation of hostilities he was posted to Rangoon, Burma, in charge of a 1,200-bed hospital dealing with prisoners of war with malnutrition and multiple vitamin deficiencies, as well as serious tropical diseases.

Ronnie returned to Edinburgh as lecturer, then senior lecturer and reader in the department of medicine at the Royal Infirmary. From 1948 to 1949 he was a Rockefeller research fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Abor, where he learnt techniques for the bioassay of vitamin B12 and folic acid, and produced deficiency states in guinea pigs with folic acid antagonists. In 1962 he succeeded Sir Derrick Dunlop [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.170] as professor of therapeutics. Administrative duties became more demanding and from 1975 to 1979 he was dean of the faculty of medicine. Although Ronnie complained bitterly about the number of committees that he was a member of, he seemed to be irresistibly drawn to them and he was a skilful chairman. At one time he admitted to membership of 68 committees and to being chairman or convener of 17. He oversaw the introduction of a new curriculum (which he did not agree with) and told how the dean of the faculty of law had suggested that he should transfer to one of his departments for having successfully argued a case that he did not believe in.

Ronnie always kept his interest in haematology and at different times he was chairman of the Scottish group of the Haemophilia Society, chairman of the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland Blood Transfusion Association, president of the British Society of Haematology and chairman of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Association. He was concerned about the adverse effects of drugs and served on the Committee on Safety of Medicines. He had many publications to his name and was an editor, co-editor or author of several books including Textbook of medical treatment (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingston). He retired in 1982 having gained many honours and awards, including the Cullen prize of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Oliver Memorial Fund Award for Services to Blood Transfusion. He was a Lilly lecturer at the Edinburgh College, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was made CBE in 1984. He had long been associated with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and served on the council and many of the committees. He served as president from 1982 to 1985. This was a particularly busy period during which he was closely involved in the building of the new Queen Mother College Conference Centre.

Ronnie had travelled widely in India during the war and once back in Edinburgh his travels continued as part of his academic responsibilities, often under the auspices of the British Council, and later as president of the Edinburgh College. He calculated that in 1985 he was in 48 airplanes and 18 trains and had travelled 112,000 miles on college business. In all, he visited 50 countries in 53 years and he kept a remarkably detailed record, which formed the basis of his delightful autobiography Travels with a stethoscope: a physician looks at the twentieth century (John Donald, 1991). In 1984 while examining in Bangladesh, he was awarded the freedom of the township of Sirajguni, where he first met his wife Mary during the war. On his travels Ronnie always planned ahead on the basis that disaster would inevitably strike in one form or another. There was some truth in this and he reported many near misses on his travels. It came to the point that on his return from holiday or a trip abroad, everyone in the department would wait anxiously with bated breath to hear what had happened on this particular occasion, be it cancelled flights, robbery, storm, strikes, riot or earthquake etc. I remember one occasion when he brought a large piece of the ceiling of his hotel room back to the department as a trophy following an earthquake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale while he was in Mexico City.

There were also legendary misfortunes with cars and it was accepted in his department that there would be a breakdown or worse on any long road journey. Big ends gave way, brakes failed and gave off clouds of smoke, cylinder heads cracked, fan belts broke, radiators disintegrated, the gear lever came off in his hand in two different cars, gear boxes and exhaust pipes broke up, once the driver’s seat came away from the floor as he was driving and on another occasion the accelerator pedal snapped. This catalogue of failures is perhaps not so surprising as it may seem for despite his unassuming and gentle manner, Ronnie was transformed into a most aggressive driver once he got behind a wheel and the faster the better. The offer of a lift home in his car was not for the faint-hearted!

Ronnie made many important contributions to medicine and he was a kind and caring man who will be remembered with great affection by former colleagues and friends across the world. Despite his complaints of the burdens of administration and travel, Ronnie’s real love was the care of his patients and good old-fashioned bedside teaching. His other interests were photography, painting in oils and gardening. He is survived by his wife Mary, his son Richard, a lawyer, his daughter Diana, a doctor, and five grandchildren.

Laurie Prescott

[Brit.med.J., 2006 333 400]

(Volume XII, page web)

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