Lives of the fellows

Ramaiah Sampangi Ramaiah

b.10 June 1948 d.6 September 2010
MB BS Bangalore(1972) DTCD Wales(1978) MFCM(1983) FFCM(1988) FFPHM(1989) FRCP(2007)

Ramaiah Sampangi Ramaiah, known as ‘Sam’, was director of public health in Walsall. He was born in Yelethotada palya near Bangalore, India, the son of Shri Kempegowda Ramaiah, an agriculturalist, and Shrimati Chowdamma Ramaiah, a housewife. The journey from Bangalore to the Midlands was, in a physical and metaphorical sense, a transition Sam accomplished with elegant ease, crossing continents and cultures in sumptuous style, acquiring new tastes and revelling in the culture and customs of his adopted homeland, while retaining an ardent, continually rediscovered, and almost passionate affection for all things Indian.

He studied medicine at Bangalore University, and then went to the UK. After junior posts in Wales, he took up a career in public health medicine, where his easy manner with colleagues and a natural talent for leadership allowed him to flourish. Unusually for a recent immigrant, he joined Plaid Cymru and got involved in the politics of Welsh nationalism. He may not have realised it at the time, but this proved an excellent chance to learn the niceties of working with local politicians.

He moved to England and soon rose to become district medical officer in South Tees and then, in 1993, was appointed Walsall’s first director of public health. This was a post he held with great distinction, establishing a unique style of leadership, making literally hundreds of friends in the health and local authorities, and beyond, becoming in the process easily the most recognisable face of the health service in local circles, until his unexpected and untimely death in office.

Over the 17 years he served as Walsall’s director of pubic health and despite several reorganisations, ‘Dr Walsall’, as England’s Chief Medical Officer once referred to him, built a large and flourishing department that led the efforts of both health and local authorities to reduce inequalities and improve health.

At work Sam Ramaiah will be remembered as a tremendous networker, excelling, in the best public health tradition, in enabling, empowering and enthusing others with his vision and style of public health. He managed to make everyone he met feel special and important; no contribution was too small to pass unnoticed, no achievement so minor as not to merit pointed recognition. These people skills allowed him to build up a strong department in Walsall, attracting talented and skilled staff, including a steady stream of public health trainees, some of whom stayed on or returned to Walsall to join his team.

He loved – and perhaps, as his family may have often felt, he lived for – his job. His working day often extended into the late evening. An evening meal and a drink with colleagues in his favourite restaurant in Walsall was merely an extension of his office, another forum for discussing, influencing, planning or deciding about actions the following day. One of these ‘curry evening’ discussions led to the creation of Welcome – an informal voluntary group of NHS managers, doctors and public health workers devoted to promoting the cause of minority and disadvantaged groups.

He was a friend to the medical community in Walsall, both as chairman of the BMA division and as a health authority executive director, and worked with general practices to help them deliver the changes that he knew they alone could make to improve the quality of primary care for the least well off in Walsall. His skill in chairing many a fractious meeting involving general practitioners, consultants, managers and lay people was the stuff of legend, artfully defusing a fraught situation with self-deprecating wit and a disarming grace.

Sam Ramaiah was a masterful organiser of meetings, events and conferences, raising funds so as not to charge delegates, and cajoling speakers to give freely of their time.

Sam valued education above all else. He supported a charity school in Bangalore that strove to bring learning and an English education to poor children. In England, Sam was a governor of a primary school and a non executive member of the board of Walsall College. He received numerous awards, but the two he was most proud of was the fellowship conferred on him by the RCP, and when he was made an honorary professor of health and wellbeing by Wolverhampton University.

Sam was a long-serving member of the board of the Faculty of Public Health, and at the time of his death was assistant registrar. Fittingly, he had just returned from a meeting at the faculty offices in London before he died.

Sam loved company, making no distinction between workplace colleagues and family friends. They blended into one large circle, meeting often at the elegant and stylish home that his wife Jyothi ran when she wasn’t involved in community and voluntary work, or teaching English to newly arrived migrants. Diwali, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, anniversaries, a bright summer day or no particular occasion at all – Sam did not need much by way of a reason to make an event of it. Ever the gracious host, Sam made a lasting impression on all who were associated with him.

After his death, 400 people made the time to attend a two-hour long memorial service at Banks’s Stadium in Walsall – testament to the regard his colleagues and friends had for the life, work and achievements of Sam Ramaiah. In Sam’s death, Walsall lost a devoted and committed public servant, the public health movement lost an ardent supporter, many hundreds lost a friend mentor and colleague, but the most grievous loss was the family’s – his wife Jyothi, daughter India and son Bharath. He died at home from a sudden and massive coronary ischaemic attack.

Jammi N Rao

[Brit.med.J., 2010 341 6870; The Guardian 24 October 2010; NHS Walsall Community Health www.walsallcommunityhealth.nhs.uk/news/tributes-paid-to-professor-sam-ramaiah.aspx – accessed 1 March 2011]

(Volume XII, page web)

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