Lives of the fellows

Henry (Sir) Yellowlees

b.16 April 1919 d.23 March 2006
KCB BM BCh Oxon(1950) MA(1950) MRCS LRCP(1950) MRCP(1966) FRCP(1971) Hon FRCPsych(1971) FFCM(1972) Hon FRCPS Glasg(1974) FRCS(1984) FRCP Edin(1993)

Sir Henry Yellowlees was Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England from 1973 to 1983. A war veteran and dedicated public servant, he held the post during a time of profound change and turmoil both inside the NHS and in the broader medical and political world around him. Son of another Sir Henry Yellowlees [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.481], an eminent psychiatrist at St Thomas’ Hospital, Henry junior was educated at Stowe and University College, Oxford. The war delayed his clinical training, with Yellowlees serving as an instructor in the Royal Air Force from 1941.

Upon completion of military service, he commenced his clinical studies at the Middlesex Hospital in January 1946, marrying his first wife in 1948. Appointed house physician at the Middlesex in 1950, Yellowlees progressed quickly through the ranks of senior house officer (casualty) and resident medical officer the following year. It was whilst in this latter post that Yellowlees came to the attention of George Godber, then the deputy CMO (DCMO), for his cool and competent management of a significant outbreak of illness amongst staff at the hospital. Having become a member of the College, he left London in 1954 at the age of 35 to work in medical administration, initially in Bristol, and subsequently at the North West Metropolitan Health Board.

In 1963, Yellowlees was plucked from the regions and appointed principal medical officer at the Department of Health in Elephant and Castle. For a time, promotion seemed to occur biennially, first to senior principal medical officer and then to one of four DCMO posts in May 1967. Companionship of the Bath (CB) followed in 1971.

Sir George Godber, who had initially spotted the talents of Yellowlees, was CMO from 1960 to 1973, although his arrival in the Department of Health pre-dated the National Health Service. Godber remains widely regarded as the finest CMO to date, having had considerable knowledge of science, as well as enviable skills of diplomacy. Despite his long tenure, Godber was not a consummate civil servant, insisting upon opening his own post and often dictating replies without sharing the correspondence with departmental officials (much to their annoyance). On occasion, he even slept on a camp bed in his office. Godber recognised that his work was onerous (a burden in part of his own making) and set about establishing an additional CMO (‘CMO-2’) with whom to share the load, earmarking Yellowlees for this unusual role. Godber’s strategy of job division seemed both timely and wise in light of a heart attack suffered by Yellowlees during the summer of 1972.

Upon his return to work in September, Yellowlees accepted the post of CMO-2, despite initial reservations. In the end, the post proved to be short-lived. In March 1973, notice was given of Godber’s forthcoming retirement and the succession of Yellowlees to the post of CMO that November. Yellowlees’ first action that summer (whilst Godber was out of the office) was to ensure that the post of CMO-2 was abolished the moment he vacated it.

Emerging from the shadows of the likes of George Godber, the most influential figures of his generation in British medicine, was not going to be easy. In the event, the shoes of Godber did indeed prove difficult to fill. The perceived role of the CMO has traditionally been one of treading a fine line between the profession and the Government, commanding the respect of each, and acting as a conduit and catalyst for discussion between the two. Godber had excelled in this balancing act.

On appointment, Yellowlees had his work cut out for him. First, he had a background in hospital administration and was the only CMO to date not to have held the diploma in public health (immediately reducing the loyalty of the public health community towards him). Second, acting as messenger to Barbara Castle, the most radical of secretaries of state, was never going to be comfortable. Third, the 1970s brought with them enormous turmoil, inside and outside medicine: inside, a confrontation with consultants over private practice and a crisis of confidence in the General Medical Council; outside, the oil crisis and the three-day week. Yellowlees was seen as neither friend nor foe by the profession. On occasion, he was side-lined by ministers. This treatment took its toll.

Despite the challenges, Yellowlees had a number of notable successes. These included producing legislation for the removal of lead from petrol, and unwavering support for the campaign for the worldwide eradication of smallpox. One of the things for which Yellowlees was best remembered in the Department of Health was his style of working: friendly, diplomatic and having no truck for traditional airs and graces. Given the turmoil, his longevity in post is perhaps impressive. He served a wide and varied range of accomplished single-minded political masters: under the Labour administration Keith Joseph, Barbara Castle and David Ennals; under the Margaret Thatcher, Patrick Jenkin and Norman Fowler.

In some ways, retirement in 1983 produced some of Yellowlees’ most successful work: for example, he led a WHO team to negotiate with the Turks and Bulgarians and provide healthcare for refugees amid the 1980s Balkan crisis.

Henry Yellowlees was made Knight Commander of the Bath in 1975. He died in 2006 at the age of 86, survived by his second wife, Mary, whom he married in 2001, and three children, one son and two daughters, from his first marriage.

Sir Liam Donaldson

[The Guardian 12 April 2006; The Times 12 April 2006; Brit.med.J., 2006 332 1037]

(Volume XII, page web)

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