Lives of the fellows

Maxwell Caplin

b.6 February 1917 d.31 July 2011
OBE(1981) MRCS LRCP(1940) MRCP(1975) FRCP(1977)

Maxwell Caplin was a renowned chest physician at the London Chest and Bethnal Green hospitals, who had the unusual honour of having a ward named after him whilst still alive. Born in the East End of London to Jewish immigrant parents fleeing from persecution in Poland, he was educated at Central Foundation School, and followed his older brother Henry into the London Hospital Medical School in 1935. Due to qualify MB BS in the summer of 1940, the need for medical manpower in the forces meant that male final year medical students were forced to take the conjoint examination six months earlier.

He worked as a casualty officer in the East End during the heaviest raids of the Blitz, and had his first paper published in The Lancet in 1941 on ammonia poisoning, after a bomb destroyed an ammonia factory and the gas leaked into a nearby shelter (‘Ammonia-gas poisoning forty-seven cases in a London shelter.’ The Lancet 1941;6152: 95-7). After being called-up into the Royal Army Medical Corps, he saw service in the Middle East, India and Burma, and ended the war with the rank of acting lieutenant colonel.

During his military service he developed his interest in chest diseases, and in 1946 was appointed as an assistant tuberculosis officer at the London Hospital in Tower Hamlets. The rest of his professional life was devoted to the care of patients in the East End of London, and he was subsequently appointed as a consultant physician to the London Chest and Bethnal Green hospitals. With the decline in the incidence of tuberculosis, his main interest became the management of chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.

He published his book, The tuberculin test in clinical practice: an illustrated guide (London, Ballière Tindall) in 1980, which has remained a standard text on the subject. His experience in the management of tuberculosis meant that he was often referred difficult cases of the disease. He realised that many patients defaulted from therapy because they were homeless, and often had problems due to alcohol excess. As one patient put it to him: ‘Thank you for looking after me doctor and giving me the tablets, but as I am homeless where do you suggest that I store them?’ This led to the foundation of Caplin House, a refuge for homeless patients where they were provided with food, a bed and their tablets.

His interest in chronic bronchitis and the resultant disabilities led to his involvement with the Greater London Association of Disabled People (GLAD), and he eventually served as president. In 1981 he was awarded an OBE for services to disabled people.

He retired from hospital practice in 1983, but continued to work as an occupational health physician at the Royal Brompton and the National Heart and Lung Institute, London, until he finally retired aged 74.

He remained in good health into his early 90s, but developed dementia with Lewy bodies, which robbed him of his precious intellect. With the help of carers he remained in his own home and passed away peacefully in his sleep. His beloved wife Nancy née Leverson predeceased him by nearly 11 years. He was survived by his two sisters, his son, John, a consultant cardiologist, two daughters, Sarah and Judy, and seven grandchildren. Two of his grandchildren are medical students. His cousin Max Rayne, Baron Rayne of Prince’s Meadow in Greater London [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

John Caplin

[Brit.med.J., 2011 243 6558]

(Volume XII, page web)

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