Lives of the fellows

Thomas Stapleton

b.1 February 1920 d.16 November 2007
BM BCh Oxon(1943) DCH(1944) MRCP(1947) DM(1953) FRCP(1970) FRACP(1975)

Tom Stapleton, former professor of paediatrics at the University of Sydney, was what physicists call a singularity, an Anglo-Irishman left over from the time when Britons more or less ran the world with a mixture of arrogance and idealism. The only product of two second marriages, he was descended on his father’s side from one of the original Knights of the Garter and on his mother’s from Brigadier-General John Nicholson, who played a key part in the breach of the walls of Old Delhi during the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. Educated at the oldest of English public schools, King’s School, Canterbury, and the oldest of Oxford colleges, University College, he came as a schoolboy under the influence of the so-called ‘red dean’, Hewlett Johnson, but was never one of those undergraduates who joined the Communist Party, only to discover too late how nearly impossible it was once in to get out again.

He remained in Oxford for his clinical apprenticeship, where he worked for the Glaswegian Leonard Finlay and made a number of lifelong friends. Following service in India towards the end of the war, he joined Ronald Illingworth’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.259] paediatric department in Sheffield as a tutor, before being awarded a Radcliffe travelling fellowship which took him to James Lawder Gamble’s laboratory in the Boston Children’s Hospital, where he studied electrolyte physiopathology, then in its adolescence. He returned to England in the fifties as a lecturer in the paediatric unit of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, under Reginald Lightwood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.282], whence he made his final move to Australia as Sir Lorimer Dods’ successor in the chair of paediatrics in Sydney, New South Wales.

While at St Mary’s, he did important work on water loss through the lungs in feverish infants and was the first to suggest that the epidemic of infantile hypercalcaemia then causing concern was the result of overdosing with prophylactic vitamin D. His promotion to first assistant brought him in contact with the renowned developmental paediatric psychiatrist Donald Winnicott [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.471] at Paddington Green, with the neonatal physiologist, Kenneth Cross [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.107], with paediatric colleagues including Sir Peter Tizard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.518] and John Davis, the future professors of paediatrics in Oxford and Cambridge, Eric Burnard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.66], who moved with him to Sydney, and a number of visitors from the antipodes, the USA and Eastern Europe, all of whom remained his lifelong friends. He was also one of the founders of the Neonatal Society and the European Society for Paediatric Research.

His tenure of the chair of paediatrics in Sydney was controversial, his Australian colleagues not knowing quite what to make of him and his confidently held views on what children’s medicine should be about – summed up as getting disease out of the way so the child could fulfil the Nietzschean injunction: “du sollst der werden, der du bist” (you shall become the person you are). In this endeavour he made enemies as well as friends, converts and admirers, but it could be said that one could judge the quality of a man – or woman – by whether they loved or hated him. He cared little for the impact of his views on the then rather conservative branch of our profession. As just one example – having been shown round a Karitane ‘home’ in New Zealand, in which mothers deemed incompetent were trained in the methods of child rearing advocated by Truby King, he stated it was “the first time I have ever visited an infant penitentiary”.

Stapleton’s main life’s work stemmed from his election as secretary general and then treasurer of the World Paediatric Association – a history of which he published privately at the end of his life – in succession to the renowned Guido Fanconi – an inspired choice on the part of Charles Janeway, the professor of paediatrics in Boston, Massachusetts, and the doyen of the specialty. From his base in Sydney, he made it his business to visit nearly every country represented in the Association, including Indonesia (Australia’s then unacknowledged northern neighbour), India, China, Nigeria, South Africa, South America, Russia and Eastern Europe, grilling their often reclusive and despotic rulers to point out that the future of the nations that they ruled lay in the well-being of their children, whatever their political persuasions and preoccupations. One would have liked to have been a fly on the wall while he lectured Chairman Mao on his duties to the people of China.

On his retirement, Stapleton returned to England and the house in Lane End, High Wycombe, to which his mother had moved when he went up to Oxford. Remaining unmarried, he had no children of his own, but instead invited young men from around the world to use his cottage as a base while pursuing postgraduate studies in Oxford. He continued to travel extensively and became an active member of Chatham House, the Athenaeum and Green College, Oxford. His services to Chinese medicine were acknowledged by the award of the gold medal of Foreign Friends of China – the only physician so honoured. His speech of acceptance characteristically included some admonitory words on Tiananmen Square and the persecution of Falun Gong.

Physically, Stapleton resembled nothing so much as an incarnation of Bertie Wooster, but his gangling frame, looking, as he grew older, as if were held together by string and sealing wax, was informed by very considerable reserves of physical and mental endurance – illustrated when he was young by his acting as medical officer to the public schools exploring expedition and in old age by an incident when he had to call the fire brigade on his mobile telephone when he fell over in his garden and couldn’t get up. Thanking his amused and bemused rescuers, he remarked that without their prompt help he would have missed his plane to Kazakhstan.

If doctors are the priests of our materialistic culture, Stapleton exemplified the advantages of the Roman Catholic ban on the marriage of its clergy in that, having no hostages to fortune, as Bacon called a wife and children, he was able to take a concerned but objective view of his young patients in their family and cultural setting and thus to give sensible advice to their parents based on his empathising with their offspring. This made him disapprove of so-called ‘covert surveillance’ of mothers suspected of mistreating their infants and to support the General Medical Council in their initial striking off of Sir Roy Meadow from the medical register for bearing false witness in cases of alleged infanticide – a stance that did not endear him to the paediatric establishment.

To sum up, Tom Stapleton was a key figure in the establishment of paediatrics as a global endeavour. He was not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who drank of it were refreshed and stimulated. Above all, he was a loyal and generous friend and patron and a character – sui generis.

John A Davis

[The Times 13 December 2007; Brit.med.J.,2008 336 513]

(Volume XII, page web)

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