Lives of the fellows

Colin Gordon McKerron

b.8 September 1934 d.4 November 2011
MB BS Lond(1958) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1972)

Colin McKerron, a consultant physician at King’s College Hospital, London, was regarded as being ‘a doctor’s physician’ and, throughout his career, an excellent teacher. He was first appointed in 1969 as a senior lecturer and established an endocrine clinic, as well as continuing research into thyroid disease.

He was born on the island of Penang in what is now, since independence, part of Malaysia. At the time of his birth Colin’s parents lived in Alor Setar in the state of Kedah, where his father, Patrick Alexander Bruce McKerron, was a colonial civil servant. His mother, Marjorie Kennedy née Rettie, was born in Ceylon, the youngest of seven children of a tea planter, Alexander Thompson Rettie, who hailed from the north of Scotland. Her own mother, Alice née Will, died when Marjorie was only nine years old.

In 1936 Colin’s parents returned to the UK on annual leave: his second birthday was spent in Aberdeen, the original home of the McKerron family. His father’s next posting was to Kuala Terengganu on the beautiful east cost of Malaya. Colin retained early memories of their house with a garden leading down to a tropical beach, fringed with palm trees. His special playmate was Salmah, a daughter of one of the Malay servants: his parents became very concerned when Colin spoke better Malay than English! In early 1939 the McKerron family returned again to Aberdeen for the birth of their second child, Jane. In August 1939 his father was posted to Singapore on appointment as chief censor, travelling this time without the family, who moved to the south of England, where they were when war was declared on Germany in September 1939.

After two months it was decided that the family should be reunited in Singapore. Mrs McKerron, young Colin and the eight-month-old Jane, with a nanny in tow, sailed across the English Channel by night ferry to France. Surprisingly they had no trouble proceeding via Paris to Genoa, where they boarded an Italian ship. Although Italy had declared war on Britain, the voyage via Bombay and Colombo proceeded normally, and they reached Singapore by mid-February.

Britain was now at war with Japan, and enemy planes started a bombing offensive as they advanced through Malaya. In spite of the war, the family spent a holiday on the beach at Changi, later to be the location of the notorious Japanese prison camp. Colin recalled seeing two large battleships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, sailing majestically from a naval base in the north of Singapore Island, only to be sunk later by Japanese torpedoes. These large vessels were intended to provide adequate cover for Singapore against Japanese attack, but there was very little British air support to cope with the large number of enemy planes. The rapid advance of the Japanese precipitated urgent family discussions. Colin’s father clearly had to stay in Singapore. Fortunately a telegram arrived from friends living in Cawnpore, India, suggesting that Mrs McKerron and the two children stay with them. Rapid arrangements were made for them to leave Singapore on 13 December 1941 in the small ship Ho Sang, bound for Calcutta. The family then left by sleeper train for Cawnpore on Christmas Eve, 1941. At this time, Colin was just seven years of age and Jane two, and to their delight their mother had wrapped Christmas presents to open on the journey.

After a short while Mrs McKerron felt that India was not a good place to educate the children, and made another move, this time to South Africa, where they had relatives. Travelling by rail to Bombay, the small family joined SS Tilawa for a month’s voyage to Durban. A telegram awaited the family’s arrival in Durban with the good news that Mr McKerron had escaped in a small fisheries protection vessel on 14 February 1942, the day before the surrender of Singapore, and would be joining them in South Africa.

From Durban, the family went to Grahamstown to live in a rented house, and Colin was enrolled in his first school, St Andrew’s.

In March 1943 Colin’s father was recalled to the UK with a view to a further posting and the whole family returned to England on SS Britannic, a Cunard ship, in convoy with the battleship HMS Warspite and other vessels. Having escaped the attention of German U-boats, they arrived in Liverpool in May 1943.

Colin was now nine years old and was sent to Swanbourne House School to prepare for the common entrance examination. He received his secondary education at Rugby School, where his academic record was sound, but not distinguished. At school he became an accomplished French horn player, but was not renowned for his prowess in sport.

He then studied medicine at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School. One of his most influential teachers there was Bruce Fowler [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], who stimulated Colin’s interest in endocrine diseases. He qualified in 1958 and gained house physician posts at his alma mater. Having decided to specialise in medicine, he obtained a post as a demonstrator of physiology at the medical school, having deferred National Service for a year. Working ‘office’ hours with no clinical commitments, he had ample time to study for the MRCP. He attended postgraduate lectures at the Brompton Hospital, National Heart Hospital and many others given by some of the leading physicians in London, notably Paul Wood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.456] (cardiology), Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514] (liver disease) and Guy Scadding [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.501] (chest diseases). He took the MRCP examination in June 1960 and unfortunately failed the clinical section. Having only undertaken one house physician post, he realised that he had insufficient practical experience at this time. He was to overcome this hurdle in June 1964, after gaining valuable experience in the Army whilst doing compulsory National Service.

Starting military training late in 1960 at Crookham, Colin then had lectures on military medicine and hygiene at RAMC Millbank, before being posted to the Far East, where he was based in Singapore. The small party of doctors flew from RAF Lyneham in a Hastings aircraft which was almost obsolete: the journey proved ‘somewhat stressful,’ as Colin recalled in his memoir Adventures in the Far East. The plane had a top speed of about 250 mph, and when facing a strong head wind, this was reduced to 100mph. The aircraft was not pressurised, and only flew during daylight hours at low altitudes. On one occasion Italian air control ordered the pilot to fly at 16,000 feet. Only the two RAF pilots had oxygen masks: the passengers, a ‘fit bunch of young doctors’, were told they should be able to withstand a short period of anoxia! Returning to 12,000 feet after 30 minutes, some of the passengers had turned blue and all of them had severe headaches. Several stops were necessary in this long and tedious journey. The final leg to RAF Changi was undertaken through a violent storm, and pilots and passengers were very pleased to see the lights of houses on the Malay peninsula before landing in Singapore.

Summoned to the office of the assistant director of medical services in Singapore, the young medical officers were told of their fate for the next two years. Most were detailed to fill vacancies up country in Malaya. Colin fortunately was asked to report to Lieutenant Colonel James Parlane Baird [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] at the main military hospital in Singapore. He was a regular Army physician who was later to become director general of Army Medical Services. The patients Colin saw were mainly Army personnel, with a few civilian and naval staff, and were suffering from ‘PUO’ (pyrexia of unknown origin). Baird taught Colin how to make a rapid diagnosis in order to start the prompt and appropriate treatment for this multi-facetted problem. Very few patients were seen with routine ‘NHS’ problems such as peptic ulcer, heart attacks and strokes; the vast majority came from ‘up country’ and had malaria, scrub typhus, typhoid, leptospirosis and, rarely, meningoencephalitis. Colin saw his first case of poliomyelitis needing an iron-lung machine, and also witnessed the effects of severe heat exhaustion in soldiers.

On one occasion he was detailed to go on some jungle training with an SAS unit. He accompanied SAS officers up the river and inland to Grik and thence to aborigine villages. Colin was asked to see and treat a few villagers, including children, with the limited facilities in his possession. When his expertise was accepted by the native population, he was asked to see the village headman, who was seriously ill with a high fever, looked anaemic and had enlargement of liver and spleen. Without the benefit of laboratory facilities, he decided to give his patient one week of antimalarial tablets (chloroquine) and a week of chloramphenicol to cover the possibility of typhus or typhoid. The headman recovered sufficiently to accompany the SAS party along jungle tracks used by communist guerrillas.

In August 1962 he returned home to the UK with the rank of captain. Initially he stayed with his parents, who had moved to Hampshire. After three weeks Colin felt he should get back into NHS hospital work and obtained a locum medical registrar post at the Royal Hampshire Hospital in Winchester, before gaining a permanent training post as a registrar (proceeding to senior registrar) at Charing Cross Hospital. It was here that he gained a reputation as an excellent teacher of medical students. He was kind, friendly and very diligent in his training methods. He organised special ward rounds for those students who were approaching their final examination. One retired GP who worked in Norfolk wrote: ‘I’m sure it was his efforts and advice that got a lot of us through the exams. He was much better and a more effective teacher than many of his colleagues.’ Colin retained a great interest in and passion for teaching throughout his clinical career.

In 1967, with the aid of a Lederle international fellowship, he went to the USA for a year and worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, under the watchful eye of the professor, Samuel P Asper. They developed respect for each other and Colin was asked to stay in Baltimore when his time came to leave. As he was still in a post at Charing Cross Hospital he felt it an obligation to return to the UK. He had done some important research work and engaged in clinical work on thyroid and other endocrine disorders in the USA. This valuable year pointed the way to his future specialisation, on which he was to write many papers, including ‘Effects of clofibrate (atromid S) on the thyroxine-binding capacity of thyroxine-binding globulin and free thyroxine.’ J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1969 Jul;29[7]:957-61, ‘Hormonal pattern of relapse in hyperthyroidism.’ Lancet. 1975 Apr 26;1[7913]:944-7 and ‘Serum triiodothyronine concentration in the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism.’ Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 1975 Mar;4[2]:183-9. He became a much-valued member of the Thyroid Club and regularly attended the appropriate sections of the Royal Society of Medicine.

In 1969 he was appointed as a senior lecturer in medicine and an honorary consultant physician to King’s College Hospital and, from 1976 to 1984, he became a consultant physician at King’s College Hospital and to Greenwich Health District. He was elected to the fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1972 at the relatively early age of 37. With his abiding interest in medical education he was appointed medical secretary to the conjoint board examining in medicine. For nine years, from 1975, he examined for the MRCP examination, and for many years he was regional adviser for the RCP in the south east Thames region. On occasions he was invited to examine abroad.

Sadly, his health started to suffer, perhaps through overwork, and he took early retirement from the NHS in 1985. When he had recovered sufficiently, his very active and able mind turned to other aspects of medicine. In 1986 he started examining for the PLAB (Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board) and in 1987 became a much-valued medical member of Medical Appeal Tribunals and of the Pensions Appeal Tribunals.

Having been a bachelor all these years, he met Frances Janet Sowerby during his tribunal work and they married on 15 May 1993. Janet’s father, Harold, was a chartered building surveyor and her mother, Brenda née Brooks, a school secretary. Colin and Janet lived happily in a delightful cottage in Middleton, Suffolk, where Colin was able to indulge in another of his hobbies, gardening. Janet, in addition to her other attributes, was a good organist and played for the parish church services. They were both fond of music. The McKerrons made many friends locally and were marvellous hosts to friends, some acquired through Colin’s tribunal work. Horticultural ‘ward rounds’ were high on Colin’s agenda when friends visited Appletree Cottage, Middleton.

Due to progressive chronic lung problems, Colin’s health deteriorated. Janet looked after him lovingly, giving him great encouragement, until his death just over 18 years into their happy marriage.

N Alan Green

[Janet McKerron; Brit.med.J. 2012 344 3810; Rev John Kemp, funeral address, 14 November 2011; McKerron, C G. Adventures in the Far East; John Barnett; John Pyne]

(Volume XII, page web)

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