Lives of the fellows

Philip Henry Sutton

b.24 February 1916 d.24 May 2009
MRCS LRCP(1937) BSc Lond(1937) MB BS(1940) MD(1947) MRCP(1947) FRCP(1973)

Philip Sutton was appointed consultant chest physician to the United Norwich Hospitals in 1952 and, with Alan Couch, built up an impressive and progressive department in the very old buildings of the West Norwich Hospital, part of the old Woodlands workhouse. Philip came from a non-medical family. He was born in Canton, China, where his father, Herbert Sutton, was a silk merchant and his mother Nellie née Blagg, a housewife who hailed from East Anglia. Philip was educated in Norfolk, first at Gresham’s preparatory school and then in the senior school, before entering King’s College, London, for his preclinical medical studies. He had a great interest in physiology and gained a BSc in 1937. Undertaking his clinical training at the Westminster Hospital, Philip Sutton obtained joint first prize in the third year with B A Stocker, a fellow student who later became an FRS and bacteriologist of repute in California. Philip and his colleague quarrelled with the dean of the medical school and neither of them obtained house appointments at the Westminster when they qualified in 1940.

Philip Sutton went as a house physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, after which he entered the RAFVR. He was sent to South Africa, where he developed severe pneumonia, which was slow to respond to treatment. This resulted in bronchiectasis and a chronic productive cough. He was discharged from the RAF in 1945 on medical grounds and with the rank of squadron leader. He was allowed the princely sum of £600 per annum until he gained permanent employment. Obviously this was beneficial as most appointments gave board and lodgings only: the privilege of working in a teaching hospital was thought to be payment enough! Together with a ‘demob’ suit, this meant a lot to servicemen in the early post-war era.

After getting a supernumerary registrar post at the Metropolitan Hospital, London, for a year, Philip Sutton continued his training with a resident medical officer post at the National Heart Hospital in 1947 and was a house physician at the Brompton Hospital the following year. He was able to study hard for the MRCP, which he successfully passed. A placement as an assistant physician in chest diseases in Norwich led to his definitive post. Philip always claimed that he made good progress at interviews by having worked under two consultants who became ‘knights of the realm’ – they added a touch of class to his CV.

Philip Sutton was responsible for the excellent outpatient clinic fashioned out of the same buildings as the wards, where laboratory tests appropriate to the period were performed. TB was a problem, but was already being conquered by effective drug treatment and sanatorial regimes. Mobile mass radiography units were introduced into Norfolk and were based in Norwich. Many early cases of lung cancer were detected, particularly in smokers from the First World War.

The chest unit was ideal for house appointments in Norwich. It was also staffed by excellent GP clinical assistants and later by the senior house medical officer, Robin Agnew. The unit was completed by having a close relationship with two surgeons at Kelling Hospital, Holt. Evan Wynne-Edwards was an inveterate smoker who had helped to run Mundesley Sanatorium, and Harvey Beard was a general and thoracic surgeon. The medical side at Kelling was completed by another senior house medical officer, James Slator. It was usually staffed by overseas junior doctors. When these two surgeons retired they were replaced by two well-trained cardio-thoracic surgeons, Findlay Kerr and Barry Ross.

The chest unit was one of the first to introduce weekly unit meetings at the West Norwich hospital, where surgical, medical and radiological problems were discussed and an early form of audit undertaken. The radiologist Ron Thorpe was an ideal person to introduce controversy into any meeting! Philip’s main publications were joint ones, including articles for The Lancet in 1955 and for Tubercle in 1956.

Philip Sutton’s administrative skills were seen to good advantage after an NHS reorganisation led to the setting up of district management teams. Although of tall stature himself, he was more like a cross between a bulldog and a terrier when it came to sorting out problems. Slackness in the ‘supplies department’ was reduced: laundry losses and shortages were investigated, and petty pilfering by patients and staff was confronted head on. He championed many new clinical enterprises, including the building of a separate regional audiology unit on the site of the Jenny Lind Hospital.

Philip was never afraid of plain speaking and had a brush with David Ennals, a local Norwich MP (and later Lord Ennals) when he was Secretary of State for Health. The Minister toured the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and was praising a Rowntree report on social services. He asked Philip for his views. “Dreadful!” said Philip, “all you just need is a bit of common sense rather than all that rubbish!” Like many others, he had strong views on the inadequacy of Department of Health norms for car parking and bed numbers in district general hospitals, and in retirement bemoaned the loss of community beds in Norfolk.

In retirement he moved further into Norfolk, to Aylsham, where he became integrated into community life. For many years Philip served the Citizens Advice Bureau in nearby North Walsham. He was an active Norwich Rotarian and once gave a lunch time talk on the National Health Service, describing it as a “second-rate ill-health service, rather than a first class NHS”. This received prominent coverage in the local paper, the Eastern Daily Press. Some five months before his death he gave a superb overview of the NHS since its foundation to the Aylsham Probus Club, of which he was a respected member.

Philip Sutton was a good golfer and played regularly with two consultant colleagues, Ken McKee, the orthopaedic surgeon, Peter Beattie, an ophthalmologist, and Hugh Maingay, a GP. For many years he was organiser of Norfolk BMA golf matches and, to encourage all-weather players, Philip presented the winter match play cup for the Norwich and East Norfolk divisions of the BMA.

In 1941 he married Catherine Elizabeth Anne Howard. They had a happy life and a family of three, one son (Geoffrey) and two daughters (Anne and Philippa). In his twilight years he lived with his son and his wife: they cared for him as he became increasingly dependent on others. Predeceased by his wife, he died after a short illness in Kelling Hospital, Norfolk, which he had visited so often in his days in practice.

N Alan Green

[Brit.med.J.,2009,339,2852]

(Volume XII, page web)

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