Lives of the fellows

Edwin Ernest Frederick Keal

b.21 August 1921 d.24 March 2011
MRCS LRCP(1952) MB BS Lond(1952) DCH(1954) MRCP(1957) MD(1971) FRCP(1973)

Edwin Ernest Frederick Keal, always affectionately known to his professional colleagues as ‘Eddie’, was a consultant physician at Brompton and St Mary’s hospitals, and a former dean of the Cardiothoracic Institute. He was born in Hull, the only child of Frederick Keal, a tram driver, and Mabel Orange Keal née Cheetham. In the 1920s Hull was the largest fishing port in the UK, so it was not surprising that the sea was in his blood. He enjoyed a sociable childhood, joining the Boy Scouts and travelling the county on his bike.

He left grammar school at 15 to become a shipping clerk and at the age of 17, in May 1939, enrolled in the Hull division of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. He was called up in September 1939 and took part in the 1940 Norway campaign and the evacuation from Dunkirk. He was quickly selected for officer training but, because he was only 19, became a midshipman on the battleship HMS Malaya. In August 1941 he was promoted to sub-lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Gurkha. Posted to the Mediterranean, the ship took part in the Malta convoys, as well as attacking German and Italian units in North Africa. On 17 January 1942, he was seriously wounded when his ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. This resulted in an above the knee amputation of his left leg. After rehabilitation in South Africa, he was declared fit for service ashore and was sent to a naval air-arm training centre in Lancashire. It was there he met Connie (Constance Mary Gilliams) who was in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS) at the time. They married in 1945. Connie went on to become a journalist and a Fleet Street columnist.

After the war Eddie began his medical training at the London Hospital and qualified in 1952. During the winter of 1947, Connie contracted TB and was treated at Brompton Hospital and Frimley Sanatorium. Eddie initially worked in London, where he developed his interest in chest diseases as a result of Connie's illness. They moved to Leeds in 1959, but returned to London in 1961 when Eddie was appointed as a senior registrar at Brompton Hospital. Two years later, he obtained his first consultant post as a physician at St Charles Hospital, North Kensington, and as a chest physician to the Kensington Chest Clinic. In 1966 he joined Brompton Hospital as a part-time specialist chest physician and, in 1977, was also appointed to the consultant staff of St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.

Most physicians aspiring to an appointment at a London teaching hospital were expected to have undertaken research to obtain an MD. To this end he joined Lynne Reid’s department of academic pathology at the Institute of Diseases of the Chest, the postgraduate medical school attached to Brompton. His research was on the rheology of bronchial secretions in patients with chronic bronchitis, now known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.This work was accepted for an MD in 1971.

Throughout his entire professional and private life he never allowed any concessions to his artificial leg. He never took lifts, preferring to use the stairs as a matter of principle. He refused to have a reserved car park space, even when it forced him to walk much further. This absolute refusal to accept that he was in any way disadvantaged reflected his courage, determination and complete acceptance of his injury. Indeed, as he often said to his family, he regarded it as his good fortune that he was alive when so many of his compatriots had been killed in the war. Notwithstanding, for many years he regularly visited servicemen suffering from similar injuries in various rehabilitation hospitals, encouraging them to take the same positive attitude to life.

He was hugely respected by both his junior and senior colleagues for his medical judgement, skill and his compassion, and was much-loved by his patients for his kindness, wisdom and understanding.

In 1979 he was persuaded to take on the role of dean of the Cardiothoracic Institute (the renamed Institute of Diseases of the Chest). This was a considerable challenge because it was at a time when specialist tertiary referral hospitals and their academic institutes were coming under increasing pressure from the Government, the Department of Health and London University. Both the NHS and the University wanted these specialist institutions to be amalgamated with teaching hospitals and their associated undergraduate medical schools. At the same time, Brompton and its Institute had merged with the National Heart Hospital and the Cardiac Institute on to the Brompton site. The relatively smooth transition of this reorganisation was in no small part due to Eddie’s skill as a negotiator and his tolerance and patience.

Also during his watch as dean, the Institute of Heart and Lung Research at Midhurst was facing grave financial problems. The governing body of the Institute at Midhurst had realised that a relatively small Institute on an isolated site in Surrey was neither academically nor financially viable, and that there was no alternative but closure. They asked for their assets to be transferred to the Cardiothoracic Institute. This of course caused huge distress for the talented medical and scientific staff at Midhurst. In spite of the fact that Eddie, as dean, had offered relocation opportunities for those research staff not due to retire, none found themselves able to accept. This once again demonstrated Eddie’s skill during the complex and delicate negotiations, and his wise leadership through times of extreme tension and difficulty.

Shortly after his tenure as dean finished in 1985 he reached the NHS retirement age of 65. He continued in private practice for a further five years, often caring for patients he had supported through their longstanding illnesses.

Always impeccably dressed and with a shock of pure white hair from quite an early age, Eddie was above all a wonderful ‘patients’ doctor’. Medicine and caring were his life. He set a fine example to his junior staff, especially through professional dedication and the holistic care of patients. While personal clinical care of patients was always his first priority, he contributed substantially to postgraduate teaching. He also served on both the Brompton Hospital board of governors and on the committee of management of the Institute for many years, where his wise guidance steered both institutions through the choppy waters of an ever-changing clinical and postgraduate teaching and research scene.

After retirement Eddie and Connie moved to their cottage in Orford, Suffolk, where they took an active part in village life. Declining health, partly due to his war injuries, forced a move in 2006 to Oakham, Rutland, to be near their son, Richard, a consultant radiologist. Connie died in 2008. Eddie was survived by his son and three grandsons, Thomas, Simon and James.

Dame Margaret Turner Warwick

(Volume XII, page web)

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