Lives of the fellows

Richard Pengelley Ashfield

b.22 May 1932 d.5 June 2010
MB BS Lond(1955) MRCS LRCP(1957) MRCP(1961) FRCP(1977)

Richard Ashfield was a consultant physician to the West Dorset group of hospitals, where he oversaw the fledgling cardiothoracic service and introduced flexible bronchoscopy and echocardiography.

He was born in Putney, London, but on the outbreak of war his father, Archibald Richard William Ashfield, sent the family to his uncle’s banana plantation in Jamaica. Here he learnt to drive a Buick at the age of nine, but hated school and the family decided to return to England in 1941. As luck would have it their ship had to turn back for repairs in New York, thus missing the convoy of 42 ships, half of which were sunk in the North Atlantic. The next convoy escaped unscathed.

He was educated at Lancing College and Westminster Hospital Medical School. After qualification he did his National Service with the Royal Air Force and was seconded to regular and emergency medical evacuation flights. This enthused him with his lifelong passion for flying, and he was later the proud owner of a Citabria light aircraft.

He was subsequently a resident medical officer at the National Heart Hospital and a senior registrar at Westminster Hospital, where he studied the benefit of hyperbaric oxygen in the treatment of cardiac failure.

In 1968 he was appointed as a physician to West Dorset, a new appointment, bringing the total number of physicians to three. He inherited a large tuberculosis clinic, which he managed to close as it was no longer necessary to follow these patients indefinitely, and slowly built up a non invasive cardiac and respiratory service. He served on the Dorset Health Authority for several years and was a keen supporter of the Wessex Physicians Club.

Richard was a congenial colleague with a unique brand of humour, which he used to great effect at meetings. He once enlivened an audience of 300 cardiologists during a tedious lecture at the RCP: yet another scattergram was shown which made little sense to any of the participants, at which point Richard stood up and suggested that if all the dots were joined up a picture of a well-known cardiologist would be obtained.

He was fond of classical music and jazz, and played several keyboard instruments, including the piano, clavichord and virginal. On retirement he had a handmade pipe organ installed in his home made to his exact specifications.

Richard will be remembered by his family as a devoted husband and father, and to his friends as an entertaining eccentric. Meticulous in dress (he always wore a bow tie), he kept a diary from childhood until his death carefully recording everything he did and everyone he met in neat italic script using one of his fine collection of fountain pens and brown ink. He once replied to a doctor’s letter apologising for not addressing him by name and hoping that he had recovered from the epileptic fit that must have rendered his signature illegible. A bibliophile, he had complete sets of all the editions of the Everyman encyclopoedia and a fine reference library on the subject of the history of the Royal Air Force. Following his retirement he flew up and down the country studying British wartime airfields.

His care of his motor cars was legendary, and car dealers salivated when he traded them in. Windscreen wipers were elevated from the windscreen and the doors only half closed every night to preserve the rubber lining. When his beloved wife Mary died he learnt to cook and bemused visitors by asking how many cups of tea they wanted before measuring the precise amount of water to fill the kettle. Similarly, the exact amount of potatoes and other vegetables a man or woman should consume daily was carefully weighed in front of his guests before dinner. All this was done with a panache and conviction that was totally disarming. He valued his friends and made a special point of keeping in touch.

Richard was an astute diagnostician who liked to rely on his clinical skills alone and to eschew the pressure for endless investigation. He enjoyed questioning accepted truths, a quality much appreciated by his junior staff. As one of the first clinical tutors in West Dorset he built up a fine tradition of seminars and lectures in the newly-opened postgraduate centre, and fostered a close relationship between hospital staff and GPs. He was a generous colleague and was always willing to stand in and cover at short notice.

He died from mesothelioma. An inquest into his death ruled this was probably due to inhaling asbestos while working in London hospitals during the 1960s. He was survived by his daughter Rebecca, and two sons, Tom and Edward.

Peter Fraser Down

[Western Gazette 13 January 2011 – retrieved 13 January 2012; Brit.med.J., 2010 341 4242]

(Volume XII, page web)

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