Lives of the fellows

John Samuel Richardson

b.16 June 1910 d.15 August 2004
Bt(1963) Kt(1960) MB BChir Cantab(1936) MRCP(1937) MA(1940) MD(1940) FRCP(1948) FRCP Edin(1975)

John Richardson, known to colleagues and students at St Thomas’ Hospital as ‘JSR’, was Harold Macmillan’s trusted doctor for over 40 years and a distinguished leader of some of the medical profession’s most influential bodies.

He was born in Sheffield, the elder son of John Watson Richardson, a solicitor who was killed in 1917 and Elizabeth Blakeney Roberts, daughter of a well-known family connected with the steel industry. After Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge (of which he was made an honorary fellow in 1979), he did his clinical training at St Thomas’, where he won the Bristowe medal and Hadden prize, before qualifying in 1936 and being awarded a Perkins fellowship. He had always intended to specialise in internal medicine, but his career was interrupted by being called up into the Royal Army Medical Corps in August 1939. He saw service at Dunkirk and was later posted to North Africa as a lieutenant colonel medical specialist, where he looked after George VI on a visit to the troops in 1942. It was here that he met Harold Macmillan who was travelling with the royal party: “the greatest good fortune of my life”.

After the war, JSR returned to Thomas’ and, apart from an initial year off with pulmonary tuberculosis, spent 28 years there as a consultant physician. He was one of the last of the general physician/teachers. Because of his dignified appearance his first students christened him ‘Sir John’. Although he was not particularly interested in research, he wrote a book on rheumatic diseases and edited the British Encyclopaedia of Medical Practice (London, Butterworth & Co). He was consultant to hospitals in Watford and Wembley, to King Edward VII Hospital for Officers, to the Metropolitan Police, who as a result regarded Thomas’ as ‘their’ hospital, to the Army and to London Transport Board. He had an extensive private practice, conducted from Devonshire Place.

Harold Macmillan first consulted Richardson in the early 1950s and came increasingly to rely on him for medical advice. The two soon developed a close friendship, due no doubt to their similar patrician and political temperaments. JSR accompanied the Prime Minister on many of his trips abroad and was always at hand in case of an emergency. He was on holiday in the Lake District when Macmillan had an attack of urinary retention and was seen by other specialists who advised operation. It was said that talk of possible cancer persuaded Macmillan to resign as Prime Minister, though it may have been an excuse for him to relinquish an increasingly stressful job. JSR sped back to London and suggested that a short period of recuperation was all that was necessary, but the Prime Minister was not to be dissuaded. JSR, having been knighted in 1960, was made a baronet in the resignation honours.

The other side of Richardson’s character was his extraordinary skill as a negotiator: he combined an apparently conservative outlook with a quiet, behind-the-scenes, radical approach which inevitably led to accusations of devious behaviour. A good example of the way he operated was his presidency of the General Medical Council from 1973 to 1980. He arrived at a time when the government had succumbed to calls for a public enquiry. He began to get rid of many current practices that he considered outmoded and to give the council a more human face, without members always appreciating how radical he was being. The result was that almost all the reforms recommended in the Medical Act 1979 had already been anticipated. He admitted that he had thoroughly enjoyed the job, especially dealing with ministers. He was rewarded with a peerage.

Another task that he achieved successfully was as chairman of the influential Joint Consultants Committee (from 1967 to 1972), set up to bring about much needed modernisation of the medical hierarchy within hospitals. He was president of the Royal Society of Medicine (from 1969 to 1971), president of the British Medical Association (from 1970 to 1971) and recipient of its gold medal, and master of the Society of Apothecaries (from 1971 to 1972). He was involved with committees on medical education, nursing and pharmaceuticals, and was behind the controversial decision to set up the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board to test doctors whose first language was not English wanting to practice in Britain. He was an examiner for a number of universities and medical colleges, and the recipient of at least 15 honorary fellowships and degrees. His one disappointment was that he failed to be elected President of the College, for which he was runner up on at least two hard fought occasions. There were, it was said, of suspicions among some Fellows of his motives. He derived some satisfaction, however, from being invited to give the College’s Harveian Oration, in which he emphasised William Harvey’s exhortation to Fellows to keep their house in order.

JSR was a tall, distinguished, reserved and rather forbidding figure. Beneath this exterior was a man of considerable charm and compassion who endeared himself particularly to patients and students. He had a formidable mind, with a quick grasp of essentials, and the ability to come up with solutions ahead of colleagues, which did not always endear him to them.

He married, when still a medical student, Sybil Trist, an art student who trained at the Slade and the Royal Academy. She became a fashionable portrait painter, and a portrait of Richardson by her hangs in the council chamber of the General Medical Council. They had two daughters, Anne and Clare, and she predeceased him in 1991. During his long retirement, which he spent in north Devon, he was active in the Lords on medical matters. He died of old age at Braunton aged 94.

Alex Paton

[The Daily Telegraph 19 August 2004; The Independent 31 August 2004; The Guardian 6 September 2004]

(Volume XII, page web)

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