Lives of the fellows

Charles Walter Pumphrey

b.8 July 1948 d.7 March 2012
BM BCh Oxon(1973) MRCP(1976) DM(1981) FRCP(1990)

Charles Pumphrey was a consultant cardiologist and head of cardiology at St George’s Hospital, London. The son of John Laurence Pumphrey, a diplomat, and Jean Pumphrey, Charles was educated at Winchester College, where he was an exhibitioner, and Magdalen College, Oxford. As a child he was inspired by science and it is rumoured that he became fascinated by medicine after watching the early TV medical soap opera Emergency – Ward 10, set in the fictional Oxbridge General. When he did go up to Magdalen, he studied assiduously, often to the derision of his fellow students, who would return from nights out to see him still hard at work: on one occasion they hurled snowballs through his open window!

He was a cardiology registrar at the National Heart Hospital and, from 1981 to 1982, held a travelling fellowship to the Mayo Clinic. He was then a senior cardiology registrar at the London Hospital.

In 1985 St George’s Hospital cardiology department was a relatively small unit in south west London, recently relocated from Hyde Park Corner. John Parker [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.438], an eminent cardiac surgeon appointed to St George’s in the late 1970s, was determined to see the department grow and modernise. Two new jobs were advertised, and Charles was appointed as a consultant cardiologist and head of cardiology. At that time the main emphasis of clinical cardiology was coronary artery disease, but whilst at Mayo and the London Hospital Charles had learned coronary intervention or percutaneous angioplasty. Both he and John Parker were also interested in cardiac electrophysiology, which was at the time an obscure but emerging sub-specialty.

In 1986 Charles appointed David Ward and subsequently secured the services of John Camm from St Bartholomew’s. A new clinical cardiology department was born at St George’s Hospital, and a new academic unit of cardiothoracic sciences was established in the medical school. The clinical and academic cardiology services expanded rapidly and today there are nine consultant clinicians and five professorial clinical academics. Charles was involved in many of these appointments and was instrumental in the development of St George’s cardiology, both nationally and internationally.

His career straddled two eras. As a medical student he was trained in biochemistry, anatomy and the importance of patients as human beings (rather than medical labels). In those days, medical students wore three-piece suits, and hospital cleaners and visitors were not allowed into the ward when the consultant did his round. In the old era it was not uncommon to see Charles on a round with a large retinue of junior staff, students and often medical visitors from overseas. He came from an age before clinical governance, HR, the internal market, waiting time targets and the power of hospital administrators. However, when he was appointed clinical director in 1996 he oversaw, often reluctantly and not without comment, the introduction of all these changes and others to the practice of hospital medicine within the NHS. He lamented the demise of the old fashioned ward round. I remember him saying ‘now I don’t know who my SHO is’.

He frequently questioned current received wisdom. He would expostulate in the ‘catheter conference’ (another tradition that has passed), ‘Why on earth did you do that?’ followed by, ‘This shows a complete lack of clinical judgment’. Thankfully, political correctness was not his strong suit, and he was perhaps at his most vitriolic when he felt appropriate patient care was at risk. He excelled at the withering look, usually peering over half-moon glasses – for example, when some youthful registrar suggested that all coronary intervention should be undertaken via the radial approach or when a junior (or senior!) manager refused his request to transfer a patient back to a St George’s bed. In the end his outspoken views were the undoing of his precarious relationship with management, and he was removed as clinical director: they had lost patience with his continued incisive questioning of management decisions, which he felt could sometimes harm patients.

Another delightful aspect of Charles’s unique personality was his absolute lack of pretension. He was determinedly English, unimpressed by glamour or the exotic for its own sake. He was unconcerned about whether his tastes in music, books, art, clothes etc, were fashionable or respectable. Despite being in great demand by patients from all parts of society, he eschewed the ‘grandeur’ of Harley Street, preferring to practice locally in south and west London. Pretension or ‘bling’ of any variety was not his thing. He drove an old Morris Minor until it would not start and then a succession of second-hand but practical cars. His vintage Aston Martin DB6 was his pride and joy, but it came out only once or twice a year and he usually rode a simple motor scooter to dash between one hospital and another. He treated several high profile patients, including African dictators, important political leaders and royals, including King Birendra of Nepal, who awarded Charles a medal, the Order of Gorkha Dakshin Bahu, second class! None of this was public knowledge.

Charles was a superb clinical teacher and trainer in the old school style and literally hundreds of medical students and trainees will be in his debt. He held a number of appointments in the British Cardiac Society and the London Deanery, and was a regional specialty adviser to the Royal College of Physicians. He was a great raconteur, very witty and frequently self-deprecating, but not everyone appreciated his wry sense of humour. Although he seemed intimidating to some, this was a façade. One of Charles’s outstanding qualities was his innate honesty and integrity. His principles governed everything he did in his private and his professional life, and he had a moral certainty inherited direct from his parents. Charles was a talented doctor with a strong personality, who made a lasting impression on everyone who met him. Above all, he cared about his patients. One of his friends recalls that one day whilst on holiday in the Pyrenees, Charles began to receive a series of increasingly urgent phone calls about a sick patient back in London as he was gingerly edging across a severe cliff face. Immediately he switched mode and became businesslike, analytical and decisive. The patient survived.

He married Penelope in 1987 and they had three children, Kate, Oliver and David, all of whom survived him. Charles bore his painful illness with fortitude and dignity, coming into work only weeks before his death. He died peacefully in Trinity Hospice.

David Ward
Oliver Pumphrey
Keith Dawkins
Edward Greenwell

(Volume XII, page web)

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