Lives of the fellows

Ronald Charles Mac Keith

b.23 February 1908 d.30 October 1977
BA Oxon(1930) MA BM BCh(1932) DCH Lond(1937) DM(1940) MRCP(1941) FRCP(1952)

Ronald Mac Keith was born in Southampton, he and his twin sister being 9th and 10th of a family of eleven children of a general practitioner, Alexander Arthur Mac Keith and his wife Alice, daughter of Henry Wipell Gadd, a pharmaceutical manufacturer of Exeter. Four of their sons took up medicine. Ronald went to King Edward VI School in Southampton, to Queen’s College, Oxford (to which he was devoted), and to St Mary’s Hospital, London. After qualifying in 1933 he was appointed house physician to the medical unit at his own hospital. He spent the following year, 1934-1935, as Radcliffe travelling fellow of the University of Oxford, in the pediatric department of Bellevue Hospital, New York, founding a fruitful and life-long friendship with Harry Bakwin. During a succession of junior hospital appointments he came to the favourable notice of Hector Charles Cameron at St James’s Hospital, Balham, where he served during the London ‘blitz’. War interrupted his hospital career. From 1942 to 1945 he was in the Royal Navy, emerging as a temporary acting surgeon lieutenant commander.

After the war Ronnie became a supernumerary registrar to AA (later Sir Alan) Moncrieff at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London. Moncrieff gave each supernumerary registrar a common paediatric problem, which most failed to solve. Mac Keith was told to investigate threadworm infestation, and his work on diagnosis and epidemiology is of permanent value. He also investigated and instigated trials of the new therapy with piperazine.

In 1947 he moved to Guy’s Hospital, where two of his brothers had been trained. There he was elected consulting children’s physician a few days before the National Health Service was instituted in 1948. At that time his special interests were in medical education, medical films - he became chairman of the medical committee of the Scientific Film Association - and improving the lot of children in hospital, especially by persuading Guy’s to permit parental visiting every day instead of only twice a week. A persistent interest in handicapped children was indicated by his founding at Guy’s the first cerebral palsy advice clinic, which was to become in 1964 the larger and more comprehensive Newcomen Centre for handicapped children. He was active in promoting understanding of psychosomatic medicine, and in 1950 he was appointed paediatrician to the Tavistock Clinic, and in 1960 to the Cassell Hospital; in 1961-1962 he was chairman of the Association of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. His advice led to the recognition of paediatric neurology in several European countries, about 80 years after its dawning emergence in the United States. He founded the British Paediatric Neurology Association.

In the 1950’s Ronnie was associated with the National Spastics Society, and became director of its Medical Education and Information Unit, a position he held for the rest of his life. He founded the ‘Cerebral Palsy Bulletin’ which in 1962 became the Journal of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. Associated with it were monographs in a series of ‘Clinics in Developmental Medicine’ of which the 67th was a Festschrift for his seventieth birthday. The famous series of monographs was composed in part by recording conferences, especially the annual Oxford meetings of the International Study Group on Child Neurology which Mac Keith ran from 1958 to 1972. Each new participant was given a tie ornamented with red carnations, and this became a well known passport at international medical meetings. He also collaborated in writing books on infant feeding, the child and his symptoms, paediatric ophthalmology, and child health and developmental screening.

In 1972 he was awarded the James Spence gold medal of the British Paediatric Association, but in general he was more honoured abroad than at home, being awarded medals or honorary memberships in the United States, Sweden, West Germany, France etc. He spoke French with confidence.

In 1971 he succeeded to the directorship of the paediatric department at Guy’s, where he laid a sound foundation for the future even though he himself had only two years to establish it. After retiring he continued to live in his London home and to work in the Hampstead office of the Medical Education and Information Unit. There he had a cerebrovascular accident nearly a year before his death, but he made a good recovery and was able to return to work and to the international scene. In his retirement he appeared happy and, at last, unhurried.

He was of medium height, strongly built, with aquiline features, their expression alternating between serious and quizzical. He was often untidily dressed but a touch of the dandy showed in his wearing a red carnation every day, and in the choice of shirts and ties. He was almost always busy, often appearing muddled, whereas in fact his mind was highly efficient as well as penetrating and original. He was sensitive, kind and unselfish but could be impatient with colleagues, never with patients. He was interested in the arts, especially painting. He was a good talker once he got going, and a stimulating teacher, although medical students could not always make out what he was getting at. Many came to value him the more highly the longer they had been in practice. His influence on the development of paediatrics was outstanding.

In 1943 he married Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Clement Osborne Bartrum of Hampstead, woollen manufacturer. She was an enthusiastic ’cellist and survived him with their two daughters and two sons.

His final illness was brief: he had been gardening on a Sunday morning, enjoyed lunch and then collapsed. He was taken to Westminster Hospital but was unconscious for the short time which remained to him.

PR Evans

[Brit.med.J., 1977, 2, 1293 & 1361; Lancet, 1977, 2, 1040; Times, 2 & 5 Nov 1977; J. Audiov. Media Med., 1978, 1, 39; Guy’s Hospital Gaz., 1977, 92, 319-323]

(Volume VII, page 358)

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