Lives of the fellows

Patricia Lesley Bidstrup

b.24 October 1916 d.14 January 2010
MB BS Adelaide(1939) MRACP(1943) MRCP(1947) FRACP(1954) MD(1958) FRCP(1964) FFOM(1981)

Lesley Bidstrup, known as ‘Pat’ to her friends, was a leading occupational physician during the formative years of this emerging specialty. She worked closely with Donald Hunter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.288] at the Medical Research Council’s department for research in industrial medicine at the London Hospital, researching into the toxic effects of inhaled particles and the occupational causes of lung cancer. She was born in Adelaide, South Australia, the daughter of Clarence Bidstrup, a chemical engineer, and Kathleen née O’Brien. She went to Kadina High School and Walford House School, and then studied medicine at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1939. After the usual house surgeon and house physician appointments, she became a medical registrar at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where she remained for two years, developing her abiding love of clinical medicine.

In 1942, she became an acting honorary assistant physician at the Royal Adelaide and tutor in medicine at St Mark’s College and at the University of Adelaide Medical School. At the same time, she started her career in private medical practice as a physician and as an anaesthetist. She also joined the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC) as an honorary captain. She passed her examination for membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1943.

In 1945, having volunteered for overseas service with the AAMC, she was seconded to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) as a medical officer in Europe. She was put in charge of the treatment of released prisoners, many of whom had advanced pulmonary tuberculosis, in the recently liberated Nazi concentration camp at Belsen. She was in charge of 400 medical beds at the Glyn Hughes Hospital, which was established in 1945 for the care of some of the displaced persons in Europe. One must remember that no antibiotics were available at that time for the treatment of tuberculosis, so care consisted mainly of bed rest, good food (if it was available) and some limited collapse therapy. All the patients also suffered from severe malnutrition and the effects of exposure.

In 1946, after many months of this very demanding work, Lesley Bidstrup left the AAMC and UNRRA to attend the postgraduate course in medicine at the Hammersmith Hospital Postgraduate Medical School, also working as a locum at various London County Council hospitals. She did a long locum appointment as an assistant TB officer at Hounslow Chest Clinic, which had a great reputation for the active treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis. She passed the examination for membership of the London College in 1947. Thereafter, she worked with Hilary Roche at the famous Montana Hall sanatorium in Switzerland.

In December 1947 she decided on a major change of career from the well-established specialty of chest medicine to the burgeoning specialty of industrial medicine, or occupational medicine as it was to become. She joined the Medical Research Council’s department for research in industrial medicine at the London Hospital under the redoubtable Donald Hunter, but kept her interest in clinical medicine and chest disease with appointments as a clinical assistant at the London and later at St Thomas' Hospital. In so doing she led an exodus from chest medicine, which was to an extent the victim of its own success in almost eradicating tuberculosis from the indigenous population of the UK. She must have extraordinary foresight in making her decision in 1947, rather than in the 1950s.

Her early work with Donald Hunter was on the toxicity of agricultural pesticides, which were at that time being used in farms and market gardens, and increasingly in domestic gardens. Her first published paper was on the health hazards of dinitro-ortho-cresol (DNC), which was read at the Second International Congress of Crop Protection in 1949. This was followed by several papers on DNC, some jointly with John Bonnell [Munk’s Roll, Vol. XI, p.69]. A paper on experimental ingestion of DNC in volunteers in the British Medical Journal [Br Med J 1951 Jul 7; 2(4722):13-6] led to the development of guidelines on the safer use of these compounds. Her interests later extended to the organophosphate pesticides, still potential killers. In 1954, she was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and, in 1964, became a Fellow of the London College. She was granted an MD by the University of Adelaide in 1958.

At this time (in the late 1940s and early 1950s), she also researched into the occupational causes of lung cancer and bladder tumours, in particular the chromates and bichromates, nickel, arsenic and chromium. She published a number of papers in specialist journals. She was in demand as a contributor to medical text books, including the Encyclopaedia of occupational health of the International Labour Office in Geneva, the British encyclopaedia of medical practice (London, Butterworth’s) and, of course, Donald Hunter’s major work, The diseases of occupations (London, English Universities Press), which ran to several editions.

In 1955 she gave up full-time work with the Medical Research Council, but remained a part-time assistant at the London. She was appointed visiting lecturer in occupational diseases at St Mary’s Hospital and in 1958 became a lecturer in Richard Schilling’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.434] department at the Trades Union Congress Centenary Institute of Occupational Health at the London School of Hygiene, where she taught many aspiring occupational physicians in what had now become a well-recognised specialty. She soon gained a reputation as a formidable teacher, no doubt enhanced by her later appointment as an examiner for the conjoint board diploma in industrial health examination, the Society of Apothecaries’ diploma in industrial health and for the University of St Andrews.

At around this time (1955) she established a private practice in occupational medicine, and she soon became available as an expert witness in many court cases, both in the UK and abroad. Most of these high profile lawsuits concerned patients seeking compensation for industrial diseases. At least one became of international interest; this was the case against Pacific Gas & Electric in California, which centred on the contamination of the water supply by hexavalent chromium. The case featured in the film Erin Brockovich. Other hazards about which she gave evidence included mercury, asbestos, pesticides of all kinds and food preservatives.

She was awarded the Yant award in 1989 for her international work, and was elected a fellow of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine in 1981. In the 1970s, she was appointed as a member of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in the UK, was a consultant to the Canadian National Research Council on environmental quality and was a consultant on chromium to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.

In her private life, she was enthusiastic about music, particularly opera and the theatre. In 1952, she married Ronald Frank ‘John’ Guymer, a distinguished occupational physician and chief medical officer of Lloyds Bank. They had no children, but she became a step-mother to his son and daughter. She lived in a beautiful flat just off Sloane Square, where her friends were always well entertained.

William M Dixon

[The Times 2 March 2010]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List