Lives of the fellows

Douglas James Holdstock

b.24 October 1933 d.30 November 2008
MSc Lond(1956) MB BS(1959) MRCP(1962) MD(1971) FRCP(1979)

Douglas Holdstock worked as a consultant physician and gastroenterologist at Ashford Hospital, Middlesex, from 1971 until his retirement in 1993. For many people who knew him, however, this was only part of a much wider career that included fighting for increased financial support for the NHS, campaigning for nuclear disarmament, and many diverse ecological issues. He remained active in these areas until his death.

Douglas was born in Reigate, Surrey, where his mother had been a peripatetic theatre sister working with consultant surgeons from London teaching hospitals, who operated on patients in their own homes. His father, Thomas Holdstock, was a civil servant. Douglas was educated at Reigate Grammar School and was one of the first science students there to become editor of the school magazine – showing his flair for writing at an early age.

Although Douglas won an open scholarship to Cambridge, he chose to study medicine at University College London, having been impressed by the Reith lectures entitled ‘Doubt and certainty in science’ given by J Z Young, professor of anatomy at UCL. A perpetual student, he delayed qualifying in medicine and won scholarships to take a BSc and then an MSc in physiology, studying hypertensive smooth-muscle-stimulating polypeptides and a study of agents which release them. He qualified from UCH in 1959. His first house physician appointment was with Eric Pochin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.424], specialist in thyroid disease. He learnt much about radioactive iodine and the consequences of radioactivity. This knowledge would come to play an important part in future campaigns for nuclear disarmament. After junior posts at UCH, the Brompton and the Whittington hospitals, he spent a further two years undertaking research in gastroenterology with the Medical Research Council, publishing articles on colonic motility with J J Misiewicz. This gave him an interest in and sympathy for patients suffering with irritable bowel syndrome. His MD thesis was on research into the response of the human colon to food.

Three years before his retirement, Douglas diagnosed lymphoma in himself, having incidentally detected an enlarged lymph node on the back of his neck. It was characteristic of the man that he continued working as normal at Ashford despite attending for early morning radiotherapy sessions at the Middlesex Hospital, his colleagues oblivious of his illness. By 1993, aware that time was running short and being a man with so many other goals to achieve, he decided to retire, to put his energies into the other issues that had become increasingly dominant in his life.

Douglas was a committed pacifist. This was evident even in his early school years when, being obliged to join the school cadet force, he refused to accept that even killing an enemy was justifiable. He was a founding member of the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons and a member of the Medical Association for Prevention of War. Douglas joined several national peace and development groups and the United Nations Association. He wrote many letters to the press, journals and politicians about money wasted on nuclear weapons and wars – money that could have gone into improving both social conditions and healthcare. In December 1987 he took an NHS petition to 10 Downing Street, pleading for more resources for health care.

He edited Medicine, Conflict and Survival from 1985 to 2006, initially as associate editor under the title of Medicine and War with Jeffrey Segall. Many editorials followed and in the winter 2007 issue he summed up his 23 years as editor in ‘Twenty-three years of Medicine, Conflict and Survival: retrospect and prospect’. He edited two books with Frank Barnaby – Hiroshima and Nagasaki: retrospect and prospect (London, Frank Cass, c.1995) and The British nuclear weapons programme 1952-2002 (London/Portland Oregon, Frank Cass, 2003). He worked hard to get a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban all nuclear weapons, particularly with the World Court Project, which was successful in asking the International Court of Justice to give an opinion that the nuclear states had an obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control.

Despite a busy life away from medicine, Douglas remained a dedicated physician and medical teacher. He was not as gifted manually as he was as a scientist and intellectual, but he would always manage even the most difficult of endoscopies. His knowledge of his subject was immense and, being widely read, would often come up with challenging diagnoses. Intellectual episodes however were always punctuated by the inadvertent mishap which tended to follow Douglas around. Vases (once allowed) would often leap from the patient’s locker on to the floor. Urine bottles would have a knack of spontaneously spilling over, so much so that the sister on the ward would regularly go around before us to move any unwary objects. He always appeared to remain blissfully unaware of these events.

Douglas was a true family man who doted on his two daughters, Jennifer and Rosemary, and his wife Mary (née Musson). He had a love of the outdoors, recording all the butterflies he saw in the garden each year for Butterfly Conservation. In 1999 his lymphoma mutated to high grade, but after a harrowing time, needing a ureteric stent and chemotherapy, he was determined to go to Zimbabwe to see a spectacular total eclipse of the sun. It was one of the most moving experiences of his life. Just two weeks before his death his first internet article was published, ‘Environmental health: threats and their interactions’, Environmental Health Insights, 2008.

Douglas died at home, his wife, daughters, grandchildren and sister Susan around him. He had a woodland burial conducted by his family with a tree planted over his grave so that his daughters and four young grandchildren can watch natural woodland develop over the area as he had wished.

Douglas Holdstock was in many ways a man before his time. His love of nature, astronomy, people and life was immense. I will long remember him as my teacher and friend, a slightly shy and awkward man, his white coat buttoned firmly to the top, wearing a large white poppy in his lapel.

Liz Bellamy

[The Guardian 13 January 2009; The Times 22 January 2009]

(Volume XII, page web)

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