Lives of the fellows

David William Barkham

b.23 April 1931 d.1 August 2009
OBE(1972) BA Cantab MB BChir(1958) MRCP(1960) FRCP(1975)

David Barkham spent much of his career as a physician overseas, in Uganda, Nigeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. As a senior government physician in Uganda and personal physician to the then president, General Idi Amin, he was deported after protesting about the expulsion of the Asian community.

David was born in Hornchurch, Essex, the younger son of William Ernest Barkham, an insurance official. He was educated at the City of London School, becoming head boy and gaining an open scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge, with the intention of reading zoology. Conscription still being in force, he spent the next two years as an officer in the Royal Army Educational Corps, giving him time to rethink and change to studying medicine. He obtained first class honours in both parts of the Cambridge natural science tripos, and for his clinical studies went on to St Thomas’ Hospital, London.

After various junior jobs, in 1960 he was appointed as a lecturer in medicine at St Thomas’. Though endowed with exceptional intellectual gifts, he decided that academic/research medicine was not for him, a decision he never regretted.

He arrived in Uganda in 1963, just after the country had gained independence. He was initially posted up country, to Mbale and Jinja, before moving to Mulago Hospital, Kampala, the principal acute, referral and teaching hospital. Also designated as an honorary lecturer in medicine at the Makerere University Medical School, he was in just the right position to exercise his gifts as an exceptionally stimulating and shrewd physician and teacher of undergraduate and postgraduate students. His charm, wit, encyclopaedic knowledge and careful advance preparation made him the ideal chairman of the grand rounds, the premier weekly event which attracted members of all the departments of the medical school. In 1972 he was awarded the OBE for services to tropical medicine and teaching. He was also personal physician to Sir Edward Mutesa, the then president of Uganda and kabaka (king) of Buganda, and later to General Idi Amin. He was deported on the latter’s orders in 1972 after protesting about Amin’s decision to expel Asians from Uganda. This was the most notable of a number of occasions when his love of justice and fair play landed him in trouble. As his oldest son aptly described him, he was a man who wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions.

After short spells as a locum consultant at the London Hospital, in administrative work in the Department of Health and Social Security, and as a senior consultant physician at the Ahmadu Bello University Hospital in Kaduna, Nigeria, he later found a fulfilling vocation as a physician in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

He spent 25 years working overseas, relishing the variety and interest of the medical conditions and staff he dealt with, as well as the local communities and their culture. An added attraction was the opportunity for travel (including the Khyber Pass in a local Kabul bus, the Sahara in a Land Rover, and the Atlantic in a sailing craft) and the chance to visit many beautiful cities with their churches, museums and art galleries. His journeys and camping safaris, with four young children, to game parks and deserts were prepared meticulously.

With a home in London, his interest in fine literature, music and Christian art and architecture ensured that his retirement was as varied and stimulating as his professional career had been. He was an active member of the Athenaeum Club and of its library committee, and was enthusiastically engaged in its debates and lectures.

David did not suffer fools and could be as critical of others as he was of himself. At the same time he had a shrewd though generous and amusing insight into the character and foibles of his colleagues, and he and his ever-welcoming wife made many affectionate and enduring friendships. He recognised in himself a cyclothymic, bipolar, personality tendency and experienced some periods of deep depression.

His terminal illness started insidiously and for long affected only his legs, robbing him of his passion for walking, until the last months of remorselessly increasing disability. He endured his passage into complete dependence with uncomplaining fortitude.

Throughout his life he was unselfishly supported in all his activities by his wife, Ann Elizabeth née Jolly, a Nightingale nurse and loving home-maker, whose loyal courageous care allowed him to avoid hospital altogether and spend his last bedridden months at home. The progress of their four children’s families, with 11 grandchildren, was a never-ending source of delight and enrichment. Their eldest son is a geologist, the two younger sons medical practitioners, also trained at St Thomas’, whilst his daughter, a lawyer, lived across the road and supported David and Ann on a daily basis. All four were with him in his last few days.

John Billinghurst

[Brit.med.J., 2010 340 627]

(Volume XII, page web)

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