Lives of the fellows

Montague Bernard (Sir) Levine

b.15 May 1922 d.14 February 2013
LRCPI & LM, LRCSI & LM(1955) MRCPI(1960) MRCGP(1964) DMJ(1974) FRCGP(1988) FRCPI(2000) FRCP(2002)

Sir Montague Bernard Levine, known always as ‘Monty’, was a physician who became coroner for Inner South London and had a reputation as the most colourful coroner in the country. Born in Moss Side, Manchester, he was the son of Philip and Bessie Levine. His parents were from an eastern European immigrant family and were itinerant market traders in the north west – he recalled having lived in 14 different places by the time he was 15 and left school.

He worked as an industrial chemist specialising in the use of rubber during the Second World War and, when the war ended, purchased a company which made rubber products such as party balloons and even had an ex-US Army condom-making machine. In 1948, three years after he’d bought it, he sold the company to the British Oxygen Corporation to fund his medical studies in Ireland. Qualifying in 1955, he became a lecturer in anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland for a year before house jobs at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Bournemouth, the Meath Hospital in Dublin and the Orpington Hospital in Kent. After a time as a locum registrar at the Western Fever Hospital in Fulham in 1958, he sent up a general practice in Lambeth with his wife, which he continued to work in from 1959 to 1987.

During these years he was also a surgeon with the metropolitan police from 1960 to 1966, a clinical tutor in general practice at St Thomas’ Hospital, and a member of the committee on non-accidental injury to children in 1982. Having trained in medical jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital, he was appointed assistant and then deputy coroner for Southwark from 1974 to 1987. He was knighted in 1979 for his services as a personal physician to James (later Lord) Callaghan who became a Labour Prime Minister. Apparently when Callaghan was foreign secretary he had a few days in hospital for a minor procedure and Levine ordered that the press were to be kept away. The ward sister gleefully informed him later that she had refused access to a man in a grubby raincoat with some suspicious looking associates; it turned out to have been Harold Wilson, then the Prime Minister, and his security staff.

In 1987 he became coroner to the Inner South London District – a post he held for 10 years until 1997. During his time in post he presided over some 500 inquests a a year as his area covered Lewisham, Lambeth and Greenwich, therefore including several major hospitals, Brixton Prison and Belmarsh high security jail. Through his willingness to speak his mind, especially when trying to avoid disasters repeating themselves, he was often quoted in the press and occasionally involved in controversy. He presided over the case of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man stabbed to death in Eltham in 1993 by a group of young white men. He told the inquest jury ‘What we have established is that a group of cowardly white youths killed a young man for no other reason than that he was black’. Hearing the evidence of the case of a drunken man, Richard O’Brien, who was killed in police custody, he castigated the police force for ‘an appalling lack of instruction’ in the use of restraint in such circumstances. He similarly condemned Home Office procedures in dealing with suspected illegal immigrants when, in 1995, a young Nigerian man fell to his death from a third floor window, and his ruling that a lack of care led to the death of a mentally handicapped inmate of Brixton’s F Wing was to lead to the closure of the unit. Just before he retired he was criticised for allowing a jury to hear evidence of the previous convictions of a probable victim of police violence, thus prejudicing them in the police’s favour.

A colourful figure, with his waxed handlebar moustache, his ‘psychedelic’ waistcoats, and a penchant for vintage Jaguar cars, he was a workaholic who would get up at 6.30 every morning to pick a fresh flower for his buttonhole. He freely admitted that his obsession with his work led to him occasionally visiting the scene of the death in the small hours to further enlighten himself. He published an influential book Levine on coroner’s courts (London, Sweet and Maxwell, 1999) and several important articles.

He was president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences from 1993 to 1994 and from 1997 to 1998 he was president of the Hunterian Society. In his retirement he busied himself delivering lectures on the functions of the coroners courts to hospitals, medical societies and medicolegal societies.

In 1959 he married Rose née Gold, a medical practitioner and graduate of London University and she survived him, together with their son, Adrian, a cardiothoracic surgeon, and their daughter.

RCP editor

[The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9878394/Sir-Montague-Levine.html; Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montague_Levine - both accessed 20 November 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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