Lives of the fellows

Reginald Seymour Lawrie

b.22 June 1917 d.15 January 2011
MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BS Lond(1939) MD(1941) MS(1951) MRCP(1940) FRCS(1941) FRCP(1973)

Reginald Seymour (‘Rex’) Lawrie was a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, London. Regarded as one of the most outstanding surgeons of his generation, he did much pioneering work in paediatric surgery before the subject became a recognised specialty. Born in Helensburgh, Scotland, he was the son of Walter Gray Lawrie, a colonel in the Royal Engineers and his wife, Eleanor Fitzgerald née Aitken, who was the daughter of Robert Eastern Aitken, a chartered accountant and chairman of the Glasgow Stock Exchange. He came from a long line of doctors, scholars and engineers and was particularly proud of the fact that he was a direct descendant of Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1718 to 1735. Two of his uncles qualified in medicine from Glasgow University; James MacPherson Lawrie was a surgeon and William John Lawrie a GP. Of his generation, two cousins, James MacPherson Lawrie and Holland ‘Robin’ Hood Lawrie, both qualified at the Middlesex Hospital in London.

After attending Temple Grove Preparatory School and Wellington College, he studied medicine at London University and the Middlesex Hospital. Having entered medical school at the age of 16, he won many honours and prizes and became one of a very small select group of surgeons who, in addition to acquiring the FRCS and MS, also obtained the postgraduate qualifications of MRCP and MD. He subsequently gained his FRCP in 1973. He did house jobs at the Middlesex, then at the Brompton Hospital and finally at the Royal Northern Hospital. During his next post, as house surgeon at the Wingfield Morris Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford, he administered penicillin intravenously to a young boy with an infected hip joint, under the supervision of Howard Florey [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.178] and G R Girdlestone,– the third patient ever to be so treated and the first to have a successful outcome.

Returning briefly to the Middlesex as a surgical registrar, he then enlisted with the RAMC in 1942. Initially based in North Africa and then in Italy, he carried out general and orthopaedic surgery at first and then became attached to a small maxillofacial unit under Patrick Clarkson, a former student of Sir Harold Gillies. A pioneering unit, the team treated complex injuries, including burns, with novel surgical techniques and achieved remarkable results under the circumstances. During the battles of Monte Cassino they managed some 5000 casualties and were forced to develop new and aggressive techniques to cope with them. Another noteworthy feature of their work was the extremely high quality of data collection which set standards not generally reached until over half a century later. Lawrie was mentioned in despatches in 1945 and spent some time at the end of the war in Austria.

In 1948, after demobilisation, he again returned to the Middlesex for a short time and was then appointed consultant surgeon to Guy’s Hospital. By then he was highly experienced in many aspects of surgery but he was also beginning to develop his skills as a paediatric surgeon and was appointed to the Evelina Children’s Hospital in 1949. The following year he also added a consultancy at the Bolingbroke Hospital, followed by, in 1956, the Edenbridge Hospital and finally in 1970, the Sydenham Children’s Hospital. For the first 15 years he was first assistant to Sir Hedley Atkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.21]. Quite some time before it became recognised practice, he was an advocate of day surgery for children and published ‘Operating on children as day-cases’ (Lancet, 1964, 284, 1289-91). Relaxed and charming with his young patients, he regarded them as ‘inexperienced adults’ and tried never to talk down to them. If one of them should have a birthday while in hospital they unfailingly received a card from him.

Recognised as an inspirational teacher, he left a lasting legacy of several generations of surgeons meticulously trained under his close supervision. Possessed of great technical skills, he had the charm and personality to impart them to others. Many of his trainees became personal friends and remained in contact with him throughout their careers. At surgical meetings or grand rounds, he would always consider other points of view before mentioning his own diagnosis, and often expressed the latter in one of the ‘bon mots’ for which he was famous. Even in advancing years he refused to use the lifts on ward rounds and usually reached the top floors far less breathless that his young assistants.

He greatly enjoyed being on the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and travelled to many parts of the UK and to Baghdad, Benghazi and Alexandria holding examinations. He was also a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

On his retirement from Guy’s in 1979, he went to Brunei as general physician to the Sultan and superintended the establishment of a new hospital and medical school.

The author of many scientific papers on topics ranging from plastic surgery, obstetrics, the surgery of children and neuromuscular blocking agents, he continued to make elegantly written and knowledgeable contributions in the form of letters throughout his life. His last paper, co-written with J H Clarkson and J J Kirkpatrick, was ‘Prevention by organization: the story of no.4 maxillofacial surgical unit in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War’ (Plast reconstr surg, 2008, 121, 657-8), published three years before he died. With his colleague Guy Blackburn, he co-edited (and contributed to) the popular Textbook of surgery (Oxford, Blackwell, 1958).

A family man, he loved gardening and playing croquet and was chairman of the local village society in Eynsford where he lived for many years. He also enjoyed foreign travel and was fascinated by archaeology.

In 1941 he married Jean Eileen née Grant, the daughter of Lewis Grant. She had been born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabawe) but her family moved to England when she was four years old. A graduate in medicine from the Royal Free Hospital in 1938, she had their first child when Lawrie was serving abroad during the Second World War and combined motherhood with running a general practice in Woburn Sands. Sadly she had to give up being a GP after a bout of acute paralytic poliomyelitis in 1948 as it left her with a residual disability. Instead she took up an active role in medical politics and continued a clinical interest in gynaecology at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and as a school doctor. Hon secretary and later president of the Medical Women’s Federation, she played a crucial role in influencing government policy on flexible training for women and the ‘retainer scheme’ whereby women could put their careers on hold for a while. She was on the council of the British Medical Association for many years and was made CBE in 1977. Accompanying her husband to Brunei, she treated the female members of the Sultan’s family.

When Jean became ill he cared for her until her death in 2009, aged almost 94. They had four children of whom the eldest, Christina Janet Seymour Williams, followed her parents into medicine and trained at Guy’s to become a specialist in rehabilitation. Of their other children, the elder son, Alexander Grant Seymour Lawrie was an accountant, their daughter, Katharine Jane Eleanor Seymour Tyler, became a personnel manager and the youngest, James Cameron Fitzgerald Seymour Lawrie, is treasurer at Christ Church College, Oxford. When he died in his sleep, peacefully at home, he was survived by his children, 11 grandchildren of whom one granddaughter is in general practice and a second is a medical student at Guy’s, and seven great-grandchildren.

RCP editor

[Daily Telegraph; BMJ 2011 343 6069; Royal College of Surgeons of England Livesonline - all accessed 2 September 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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