Lives of the fellows

Ralph Harry Richmond Aston

b.22 June 1926 d.9 May 2009
MB ChB Birm(1948) MRCS LRCP(1948) DIH(1955) MD(1963) FFOM(1978) FRCP(1985)

Ralph Aston’s first post in industrial medicine was with Donald Stewart, the founding member and first honorary secretary of the Association of Industrial Medical Officers, as the Society of Occupational Medicine was then called. Ralph lived to become the Society’s president and to see the aspirations of the early pioneers not only fulfilled but exceeded. For 57 years he played a major role in the development of the specialty, not least through his work helping to establish the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and guiding it during its early years.

He was born in Willenhall, Staffordshire, and remained close to his Black Country roots. His father, Arthur Victor Aston, was the manager of an iron foundry. As a child Ralph lived within 200 yards of a drop forge. At 16 he left school intending to pursue a career in bacteriology, but a professor at the University of Birmingham advised him to study medicine. The university offered him a place in the second year, subject to him obtaining the necessary exemption qualifications by the beginning of the new term, which, with characteristic determination, he achieved. He went on to qualify in 1948, at the age of just 21. After house appointments, two years National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps and a short spell in general practice, he decided on a career in industrial medicine, as it was then called.

In 1953 he joined the Austin Motor Company as an assistant industrial medical officer. During his time at Longbridge he acquired a diploma in industrial health and an MD, the subject of his thesis, on the impaired working capacity of men in middle life, being unusually forward-looking for the time.

In 1967 he was appointed chief medical officer of Lucas Industries, a large and diverse organisation with major manufacturing activities at home and overseas. In addition to setting high standards for the occupational health services within the company and advancing the skills and achievements of those who worked in his department, he continued his research, publishing papers on cervical cancer [‘An analysis of recorded husbands' occupations involving exposure to mineral oils among patients with cancer of the cervix’. IRCS Medical Science. 11(3)(pp 243), 1983] and on malignant melanoma among those whose occupations involved soldering. He became a member of the influential Engineering Employers Federation health and safety committee and of Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), becoming vice-president (from 1984).

Because he was intelligent, diligent, industrious, dedicated, thoughtful, caring and possessed of unshakeable integrity, he could reasonably have anticipated his promotion, through hierarchical systems which prevailed in those days, to the role of chief medical officer. What he could not have expected was his contribution to the recognition of occupational medicine as a separate specialty, albeit a small but increasingly important one, or that he would be influential in the establishment of a chair and institute in the subject at Birmingham University and, above all, would become one of the founders of the first faculty to be established wholly within the Royal College of Physicians in the five centuries of its existence.

Throughout his career he was influential in the West Midlands group of the Society of Occupational Medicine, remaining a stalwart even in retirement. And his involvement in the Society at a national level led to his taking part in developments leading to the Joint Committee on Higher Medical Training of the Royal Colleges recognising occupational medicine as a specialty. He was also involved in the moves which resulted in the College founding the Faculty of Occupational Medicine in April 1978. The College had established a working party on occupational medicine when Sir Cyril Clarke [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.112] was president. This became a standing committee during the presidency of Sir Douglas Black [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.62] and Ralph Aston was one of two members of the Society of Occupational Medicine invited to join the standing committee. The latter’s recommendations led to the College establishing the Faculty of Occupational Medicine.

The nine members of the standing committee nominated by the College were named as the first fellows of the new Faculty, Ralph being one of these. A member of the standing committee who had been co-opted to act as a direct link between the College and the Society of Occupational Medicine was named as the first member of the Faculty and the College appointed all as the first board. The following year elections to the board took place. Ralph was elected and served a further seven years, six of them as registrar, a clear indication of his organisational, persuasive and diplomatic skills. During these years the foundations of the Faculty were firmly laid; specialist training, professional examinations, ethical guidance in occupational medicine, where obligations exist both to the employer, as well as the employee, and other important matters were addressed with Ralph’s wise and assured guidance. He also paid attention to establishing and maintaining lasting relationships with the Society of Occupational Medicine and used his positions as president elect, president (from 1977 to 1978) and then immediate past president of the Society to influence this amicable and mutually beneficial arrangement in a direction which has resulted in continued co-operative links between the Faculty and the Society.

He was a tall man, in fact a very tall man – exactly two metres in height, as he delighted in telling people. Tallness and a slight hearing difficulty caused him to stoop when speaking to others, a posture which was characteristic of the attentiveness he paid to the opinions of others. He was an entertaining companion and an enjoyable colleague. His chuckle at the end of some observation was a pleasure to hear.

His long marriage to Sheila Mary, whom he met in his first year as a medical student when she was training in physiotherapy, was filled with devotion to their son and daughter and mutual interests in art, music, antiques, and above all gardening. It was while he and Sheila were preparing for a morning in the garden that he became unwell and, despite assuring others that it was “nothing serious” while en route to hospital, he died the following day.

In a 2007 article he wrote about his life in occupational medicine, declaring he had been '…fortunate to have a professional life full of variety and interest at home and abroad…' and that he had 'never for one moment regretted the decision I made more than half a century ago to enter occupational medicine'. A view colleagues and patients will doubtless endorse.

Dudley Bruton

[The Society of Occupational Medicine Newsletter, 117, July 2009]

(Volume XII, page web)

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