Lives of the fellows

Matthew Kenyon Alexander

b.23 September 1921 d.28 August 2008
MB ChB Liverp(1944) DPath(1951) MRCP(1954) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1967) FRCP(1975)

Matthew Kenyon Alexander, known as ‘Ken’, was a consultant pathologist at the South Warwickshire Hospital Group. His father, Matthew Alexander, was a Birkenhead dentist and his mother a flamboyant Australian, the widow of the captain of a sailing ship. Her tales of an outback upbringing and her life on board ship made a lasting impression on her son. She was a deeply moral person, though not a religious one.

It was as a schoolboy at Birkenhead that he first realised the power and the pleasure of writing, and thought that he might spend his life in the academic world of literature. But, soon after he left school, the Second World War intervened. His first instinct was to volunteer for the Air Force. Perhaps providentially, the RAF already had too many applicants and he was asked to reapply later. His mother, however, insisted that he enrol as a medical student at Liverpool University. Not only would this prevent him from being called up, but would also mean he could stay safely at home. In the event, the entire city was threatened with annihilation during repeated German bombing raids. After the first air raid the young medical students sang frivolous songs as they drove on the back of an army lorry to a bomb site. The songs faded from their lips when they saw the destruction, and the tears of those searching the rubble for the bodies of the dead.

It was at this time that he first met Pegi, a nurse at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary. The war was entering its final stages when Ken completed his medical studies. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was drafted to India just as the war in the East was ending. By chance, Pegi also served in India, but their paths did not cross. It was only after he returned to England that they met again, when Pegi was his ward sister at Chester Military Hospital. They married soon after Ken left the Army.

They lived in Cambridge at first, where he trained as a pathologist and their first son, David, was born. He completed further training at the United Liverpool Hospitals until 1955, when he was appointed as a consultant pathologist to the South Warwickshire Hospital Group. The family, which by that time included Matthew and Sian, moved to a house in Banbury Road, Stratford-upon-Avon, a base for the rest of his life. Mark, Laura and Lucy arrived later, to complete the family of six children. Throughout Pegi remained the backbone and support for the family, creating a real home and welcome for all.

Ken developed a comprehensive histopathology service for Warwick, Leamington and Stratford hospitals with only two colleagues (Alan Prior and Derek Barrowcliffe). He developed a special interest in haematology for all the hospitals in the group and introduced novel communication systems for relaying the results around the group – an early version of a fax system. His original research work in haematology was carried out with a friendly and capable statistician at the nearby National Vegetable Research Station. He pioneered the introduction of early computer techniques in the laboratory.

He liked people and had many close friends, so it was perhaps curious that he chose pathology as a career, a medical specialty with little patient contact. Haematology at least gave him access to real people, and his anticoagulant clinics were notorious for the overrunning of appointments as he talked at length to his patients. He was always approachable, with a warm welcoming manner and a quiet smile was never far from the surface. During discussions at the hospital clinical meetings he displayed an extraordinary range and depth of knowledge presented in a quiet almost diffident manner. But he could be absent minded. Once, after a morning’s work at Leamington Hospital he decided to walk to Warwick Hospital along the canal, overlooking the fact that the canal did not follow the direct route. The out-patient clinic did not start until three o’clock that day.

Away from the laboratory, he enjoyed long walks with his friends and his Labrador dogs and returned to his first love of writing and literature. He discovered, perhaps belatedly, that he had a talent for writing verse. His poetry attracted critical acclaim, winning prizes and was published in anthologies. His writing reveals a humane mind, articulate and compassionate, but painfully aware of the transient happiness that is granted by our own mortality. His words remain as a testament of the curiosity he felt for the world around him, and the awe and the humour which it inspired in him. He derived particular pleasure from the many friendships that he struck up among the Shakespearean actors and bohemian scholars who shared his enthusiasm for fine writing and the public houses of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Matthew Alexander
Robert Allan

[Brit.med.J.,2008 337 1905]

(Volume XII, page web)

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