Lives of the fellows

John Michael Rice-Oxley

b.2 November 1919 d.19 May 2006
BM BCh Oxon(1943) MA(1945) MRCP(1948) DM(1950) FRCP(1971)

For the first 20 of his 31 years as consultant physician in Worksop Michael Rice-Oxley had sole responsibility for 220 medical beds, ran out-patient clinics at three hospitals, provided in-patient care at five hospitals, and for his domiciliary visits covered an area of about 15 miles in every direction. ‘During this time,’ he wrote, ‘I had quite a lot of work.’ But despite his many professional achievements – at Worksop alone he founded a diabetes clinic, was chairman of the consultants’ medical committee, sat on the hospital management committee, oversaw the introduction of medical students and guided countless nurses through their exams – he is remembered above all for his gentleness of spirit, his integrity and that genuine concern for others which so characterised his nature.

Born in London, Kensington, a year after the First World War, Michael was grandson to the Mayor of Kensington and Physician-in-Ordinary, Sir Alfred Rice-Oxley, and son to Douglas George, Surgeon-in-Ordinary, both of whom attended Princess Beatrice. It was a happy childhood. Summers were spent on the north Cornish coast: ‘they were wonderful holidays. We went for the month of August. This was Betjeman country…’

It was at Marlborough College that Michael first developed that love of music which would remain with him for the rest of his life. He later traced the first stirrings of this love to a concert in which he witnessed Rachmaninov playing his second piano concerto under Sir Thomas Beecham at the Royal Albert Hall. It was also at Marlborough that, aged 15, he made the decision to become a doctor, and in October 1938 he went up to Oxford.

At Queen’s, the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, and the Radcliffe Infirmary, Michael studied under Le Gros Clark (famous for having been hoaxed with the Piltdown Man), Howard Florey [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.178] and Norman Heatley. Work on the manufacture of penicillin was going on at the time. It was at Oxford too that he met Anne, an English graduate: ‘I think it must have been love at first sight as far as I was concerned and I started to pursue her; but she took quite a bit of wooing! Her house had iron railings, which she’d nip behind when I walked her home. Later the railings were removed for the war effort and she lost her protection!’ They were engaged in December 1940 and three years later began a marriage that would last over 63 years.

The career that was to occupy Michael for almost half a century began at the Radcliffe casualty department under Josep Trueta, a Spanish surgeon who developed the close-plaster technique during the civil war. (In a gesture that would come to typify his attitude to family, Michael spent his first earnings on a bicycle for his wife.) Then, on 13 May 1944, the day after his first child was born, Michael received his commission as a first lieutenant. At the Military Hospital for Head Injuries in St Hugh’s College, Oxford, the young doctor spent a year treating casualties of the D-Day invasion, before a posting to India obliged him to leave his son and pregnant wife and set sail for Bombay. His work took him to hospitals in Delhi, Poona and Ranchi, and brought him into contact with the emaciated victims of Japanese prisoner of war camps, as well as with a wide range of infectious diseases.

It was through his investigations of amoebic dysentery that he first developed an interest in ulcerative colitis (UC), an interest he would pursue on his return to the Radcliffe in 1948. As a senior registrar he wrote a thesis on UC and published two collaborative papers in The Lancet documenting the largest number of UC cases ever at that time described. During his years as a registrar he wrote all of The Lancet’s leading articles on UC and allied subjects, as well as annotating those submissions relevant to the area.

In 1953, shortly after his 33rd birthday, Michael moved with his wife and three sons to Worksop and took up the position of consultant physician to the Chesterfield Royal. He would remain there for the rest of his life. As well as running five wards at Kilton Hospital (Worksop), he supervised the hospital at Carlton, saw in-patients in Rampton, and ran clinics at Retford too. At what is now Bassetlaw Hospital he founded a branch of the British Diabetic Association. His medical interests were wide and even extended to hypnosis, a technique that proved effective in assisting both childbirth and dental operations, and in treating vaginismus. He also used it for resistant cases of asthma: ‘…it is difficult to know how successfully. At Chesterfield, I had a room next to a loo and, at a critical moment, a plug would be pulled, making a dreadful noise…’

Michael’s dedication to his community was unwavering. He was chairman and president of the Worksop Music Club, chairman of the Worksop Civic Society, a school governor, vicar’s warden, a member of the diocesan synod; he was the first lay chairman of the deanery synod, a member of the Worksop Council of Churches and president of the Bassetlaw Hospital League of Friends. After he retired in 1984, he continued to support local causes, as well as bigger charities such as the National Trust and Amnesty International.

Retirement allowed him time to explore his many non-medical enthusiasms: gardening, photography, music and cricket. Literature, too, was important: a lover of Wodehouse, Wordsworth, Browning, he ‘felt a particular affinity with Betjeman because of Marlborough, Oxford and Cornwall’. He was a keen walker with a deep affection for the Lake District, and continued to ramble even into his eighties. His body would let him down in his final years, but his mind remained as sharp as that of any of his six grandchildren: he kept up with medical journals, took on the cryptic crossword and learned to use the Internet. Even the complex writings of C S Lewis, a writer he had heard lecture in Oxford and whose religious convictions closely mirrored his own, were never far from his side.

Michael died on 19 May 2006 (the anniversary, as it happens, of Betjeman’s death). A loving husband and father, a faithful Christian, and an inspiration to his children and grandchildren, he was the hub of a vast network of friends and family and deeply loved by all.

Tom Rice-Oxley

[Brit.med.J., 2006 333 1176]

(Volume XII, page web)

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