Lives of the fellows

Richard Ian Samuel (Sir) Bayliss

b.2 January 1917 d.21 April 2006
KCVO(1978) BA Cantab(1938) MRCP LRCP(1941) MB BChir(1941) MRCP(1942) MD(1946) FRCP(1956) Hon FRCPath(1994)

Dick Bayliss was a prominent general physician during the second half of the twentieth century, becoming dean of Westminster Hospital Medical School, vice-president of the College and physician to H M The Queen, for which he was created KCVO in 1978.

He was born in Staffordshire, the son of an iron master. Dick took an early interest in medicine at the time that he developed whooping cough, reading it up in Pear’s Encyclopaedia. He was then given a microscope by his grandfather, and built a laboratory in the attic, where he dissected a frog and where his myopic spectacles may have saved his sight when a flask exploded on a Bunsen burner. He went to Rugby School and thence to Clare College, Cambridge, for his pre-clinical studies, obtaining a 2:1 degree, and afterwards to St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School, qualifying in 1941.

At Cambridge he was active in the amateur dramatics club, but not the Footlights, and was in charge of the lighting; indeed, he obtained the unusual distinction of being elected president of the club, even though he was not an actor. He composed and played lyrics, becoming for a while a gramophone record critic. He played the piano beautifully from an early age, and this was put to good use at the students’ Christmas shows at St Thomas’. He had a natural ear and was able to play jazz spontaneously throughout his life; indeed, for three months he was a professional musician in a nightclub in Munich.

He was successively a student, casualty officer, house physician, registrar and resident assistant physician at St Thomas’ in the war years, and his reminiscences of hospital life whilst the hospital underwent repeated bombing are fascinating and often amusing. The staff worked all the time, every day of the week, dealing with harrowing injuries in restricted conditions, particularly after bombings nearby, including one that landed on a double decker bus. He was renowned for his cool diagnostic skills under these circumstances. Once he is reputed to have diagnosed atropine poisoning in a medical student with fixed, dilated pupils, and traced the source to the muslin handkerchief that the landlady had used both to mop up the atropine eye drops of her daughter and strain the student’s breakfast coffee. He passed the MRCP examination only a year after qualifying; indeed, he seemed to excel at everything that he did.

His initial interest was in cardiology, and he wrote his MD thesis, awarded in 1946, on cardiac metastases from bronchogenic carcinoma. After the war, he spent three years in India as a medical specialist with the rank of major, in charge of the British military hospital in Delhi. There he showed that the diarrhoea that afflicted only the officers who drank whisky and soda, or gin and tonic was due to E. coli contaminated water, establishing that the soda and tonic were made locally from water that came from tanks on the roof containing drowned birds and mammals; or sewage, as the bacteriologist pithily described it. In 1948 he returned as tutor in medicine at the Postgraduate Medical School with John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341], and in 1950 became a lecturer in medicine and consultant physician at the Hammersmith Hospital. From 1950 to 1951 he was a visiting Rockefeller fellow at Columbia University in New York, where he sought the elusive aldosterone in urine, a quest unfortunately impaired by an ether explosion in the laboratory refrigerator, a crime of which he was perhaps uncharacteristically innocent; this destroyed all his samples. In 1954 he moved to the Westminster Hospital, initially as assistant physician and endocrinologist.

Everyone who knew him described him as an outstanding physician; immaculately dressed, with a penchant for striped shirts, and with dark hair, large horn-rimmed glasses, and a piercing twinkle in his eye. He was renowned for his diagnostic skills, so much so that some patients called him the ‘magician’ and he was adept at eliciting important details of histories from patients. A charismatic teacher of the students, he was revered by them as ‘god’. He was dean of Westminster Hospital Medical School from 1960 to 1965, succeeding in modernising that institution, but his term was cut short, at the age of 48, by a myocardial infarction, which he treated in his own way by getting out of bed as early as possible, against advice, and skiing three weeks later. In 1964 he joined the Medical Household as physician to the Royal Household, and was physician to The Queen from 1970 to 1982, and head of the Medical Household from 1973 to 1982, when he retired. He handled this varied and sometimes difficult post with skill, discretion and aplomb.

In addition to 100 papers and 33 chapters, his book on Practical procedures in clinical Medicine (London, J & A Churchill), first published in 1950, went to three editions. He also made a film on the examination of the central nervous system. Thyroid disease: the facts (Oxford, Oxford University Press), published in 1982, has gone to three editions.

He gave the College Harveian oration on ‘Thyroid disease as the expression auto-immune disease’ in 1983 and the Croonian lecture in 1974 on ‘Idiopathic oedema in women’. At the College he was an examiner, councillor, a second vice-president (from 1983 to 1984) and assistant director of the College research unit from 1982 to 1988.

He was made an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, in 1983, and of the Royal College of Pathologists in 1994. He was chairman of the Joint Liaison Committee for Independent Health Care from 1979 to 1983, secretary and then president of the Association of Physicians, a member of the board of governors of Westminster Hospital, the council of Westminster Hospital Medical School and the council of the British Heart Foundation. Among other roles, he was a civilian consultant to the Royal Navy, an adviser to the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research, medical director of Swiss Re Insurance Company (UK), director of J S Pathology, medical adviser to the Nuffield Hospital Trust, chairman of the board of Private Patients Plan Medical Centres, chairman of the editorial board for Medical Sciences, Pergamon Press, honorary consultant physician to the Newspaper Press Fund, becoming vice-president, and chairman, medical advisory panel, Independent Television Commission.

After retirement Dick continued in private practice and as medical adviser to many organisations, and was consulted both in this country and abroad. He read voraciously and maintained an active interest in medical writing, taking to the computer like a duck to water.

Being a natural raconteur, he had a fund of interesting stories of medical practice from the 1930s onwards. He kept up with many of the people who had worked with him, corresponding with them regularly. One correspondent said that he touched many lives and in doing so, left the world better for his time in it; another that he gave his best and looked for the best in others.

Throughout his life he had a succession of medical and surgical illnesses to which he applied his interest and diagnostic skills, including a coronary bypass, leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm, and a perforated Meckel’s diverticulum. These culminated in a recrudescence of histoplasmosis a few years before his death, probably contracted years before in the United States. He gave, with characteristic gusto, a noteworthy lecture recounting the difficult personal diagnosis of this esoteric disease. Finally, he quickly succumbed to a malignancy after returning from a skiing holiday abroad and planning celebrations for his 90th birthday. He was a lifelong smoker, which may have been the ultimate cause, and in his eighties set fire to his flat.

He finished his memoirs, In sickness and in health: a physician remembers (Lewes, Book Guild, 2007) in the year of his death. These include a memorable account from 1935 of the appalling behaviour of the Hitler Youth in the Allgau, and fascinating details of medical life at St Thomas’ during the bombing, in India in the 1940s, and in London during the second half of the 20th century.

In 1941 he married Margaret Lawson, the marriage being dissolved in 1956, from which there were two children, Christopher, now a consultant radiologist, and Caroline. In 1957 he married Constance Ellen Frey, by whom he had two daughters, Susie and Ginny, and in 1979 Marina Rankin, née de Borchgrave d’Altena, with whom he enjoyed his last happy 27 years, entertaining in South Kensington their many friends with wonderful food, wine and conversation.

Sir Richard Thompson

[The Daily Telegraph 25 April 2006; The Independent 26 April 2006; The Times 2 May 2006;,2006,332,1157]

(Volume XII, page web)

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