Lives of the fellows

Thomas Michael Lloyd Price

b.11 May 1916 d.23 November 2005
MB BS Lond(1939) MRCS LRCP(1939) MRCP(1947) MD(1948) FRCP(1963)

Michael Price was a consultant physician to the Woolwich and Lewisham area for the first 30 years of the NHS and a guiding force behind the establishment of Lewisham as a hospital with university status. He was a renowned clinician whose juniors gratefully remember him for his teaching, his friendship and for his sense of fun.

He was born in Bushey, Hertfordshire, the son of Ernest Lloyd Price, a chartered accountant, and Edith Muriel Price née Webb. Michael went to Epsom College and then Guy's Hospital Medical School. He was an entrance scholar and evidently stayed at the top of his year, becoming one of only two house physicians taken on at Guy's in 1939. There was no clinical science or evidence-based medicine on the wards in the 1930s: the students rated staff on their clinical acumen, which was the stock in trade of medicine at the time. Sir Arthur Hurst [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.509], Sir Charles Symonds [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.563] and a young surgeon, Russell Brock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.62], were top of the bill. Sir Adolphe Abrahams [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.1] came far down.

Off campus, Michael was captain of Guy's cricket team and thereafter never missed a Lord's Test. He said that he never saw the equal of Wally Hammond for a graceful cover drive. As a student he developed his lasting habit of early morning reading, settling to The Times and two medical journals a week with breakfast, beginning to accumulate his formidable intellectual baggage, available on all occasions to charm his company and to provide interest, surprise and fun.

In 1939 Michael volunteered for the RNVR. It must be said that, being tall, dark and handsome, he looked marvellous in a naval uniform. He served as a surgeon lieutenant on destroyers in the North Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Here he befriended two colleagues called Cyril whose abilities he admired the most. Both were knighted: Sir Cyril Clarke [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.112] became president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Cyril McLintock finished as head of the Forces Medical Services. Michael did not talk of the war at sea, but he always attended a service on Remembrance Day.

In 1943 Michael married Ann Byatt, a ravishingly pretty dancer in Ninette de Valois' corps de ballet. He was promptly posted to Australia to work with the casualties predicted from the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Luckily, Ann's uncle was an admiral, Sir Andrew Cunningham, who kindly gave her passage on his flagship to join her husband in Sydney for the duration.

In 1946 Michael was glad to get any post at Guy's in the teeth of strong post-war competition. So he spent a year as a well-seasoned house physician. He was then promoted to a stint as a medical registrar and began to show his qualities as a doctor and a teacher.

In 1950, two years after the birth of the NHS, Michael was appointed as a consultant general physician to about 10 hospitals in the Woolwich and Lewisham groups. In 1960 this post was reduced to a mere five hospitals in the Lewisham group alone. These old London County Council (LCC) hospitals had been starved of cash. The enormous clinical load was served by dreadful buildings, a skeleton and largely demoralised staff, and long outdated equipment. Across the country, this was the legacy that many of Michael's generation of new consultants started with and spent their lives changing for the better.

Michael began by recruiting first class colleagues and encouraging the other specialties to do the same in the buyer's market of the time. This led to an immediate improvement in the house staff. There followed energetic postgraduate teaching, a postgraduate centre, a good junior mess and bar, and eventually registrars and students from the Guy's rotations. The young liked to go to Lewisham because of the wealth of clinical material (Michael called them patients), and because the hospital was warm and welcoming. Many took the chance to see Michael in outpatients talking in his natural, friendly way to patients. His manner would now be considered a textbook model in any communications skills course: Michael just tried to be polite.

His concern for less well off patients, the majority at Lewisham, was evident when he put them on corticosteroids for three days, long enough for the certificate of ‘hypoadrenalism’ to get registered and release them from prescription charges. Somehow these certificates were never rescinded. This useful tip caught on and must have cost the NHS dear. Aneurin Bevan would have approved.

On top of the work and teaching were endless meetings, committees and conferences, all to acquire more funds for staff, buildings and equipment. Apparently Michael's strength in committee was his skill in the art of the possible and his grip on the subject, which allowed his meetings to be brief. And no one was allowed to get cross. Of course he had never even heard of a management course.

The clinical part of the MRCP exam eventually came to Lewisham. In these examinations of clinical skill Michael, the kindest of men, revealed an unexpectedly severe side. He was a convinced generalist, who would not tolerate sloppy methods. In this context he deplored the tendency of some subspecialist colleagues to pass themselves off as generalists by going on take-in once a month.

By the time Michael retired at 65 Lewisham Hospital was well on the way to its future conjunction with Guy's as the country's first flagship NHS trust hospital and later its current status as University Hospital Lewisham. Of course Michael was not alone in achieving the transformation, but he has a claim to be first among equals. And it is important to point out that not all peripheral hospitals became ‘learning hospitals’ on a par with the Whittington and the Central Middlesex, as Lewisham has done. This sort of success or failure depended largely on the appointments made around 1950.

Throughout this time, Michael had an exceptionally happy life at home. Ann was a wonderful homemaker, and his three adored and talented children kept him involved in the social revolutions of the seventies and eighties. Their house was open to all. So, among the children’s school friends, one might meet neighbours, nurses, doctors of rare distinction and otherwise, dancers recalling the Ballets Russes, the chess champion of Kent who ran a hut at Bletchley full of code breakers, and a film censor.

Michael himself was a most interesting companion. Apart from his wealth of information, he was full of surprises and held some unpredictable views, often not easy to reconcile. Why did he hold that Peter Pan was so evil an influence that it should be proscribed? How could he admire Margaret Thatcher, Adlai Stevenson and the Dalai Lama? He also gave a memorable talk on the medical knowledge of Lewis Caroll who, he convinced us, based most of the characters in Alice's Adventures on clinical syndromes, most strikingly, Humpty Dumpty, who physically and psychologically resembled a patient of his with severe fragilitas ossium.

Michael’s retirement was spent, entirely free of medical activities, in travel, listening to ancient music on his music centre and at many concert halls. He accompanied his chess playing granddaughter to her competitions and enjoyed extended family life to the full.

Then Ann died quite suddenly. After a whirlwind courtship, Michael married Elizabeth, the widow of his friend and colleague Neville Southwell [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.493]. Time for them was at a premium because Elizabeth was already ill. She died just 18 months after their marriage. Before long Michael’s own health deteriorated and he eventually moved to a care home in Seaford near his headmaster son. He died in 2005 at the age of 89.

Michael is remembered for his achievements and, above all, as the man who lifted our spirits when we met him and left us feeling better. He remains for all who knew him one of the nicest men we have ever met.

Christopher Mallinson

(Volume XII, page web)

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