Lives of the fellows

Robert Hughes Parry

b.3 January 1895 d.1 May 1986
MRCS LRCP(1918) MB BS Lond(1921) DPH(1924) MD(1933) MRCP(1934) FRCP(1943)

Few in this country’s health services can equal Robert Hughes Parry’s string of successes. He was Bristol’s medical officer of health for 26 years, and for much of this time also held the University chair in preventive medicine; a not uncommon combination in pre-war days, which could advance collaboration between academia and public health but at the risk of conflicting demands on the holder’s time. After the war he was appointed KHP and QHP, and in 1946 he was elected president of the Society of Medical Officers of Health. After his retirement he was High Sheriff of Caernarvonshire from 1958-59, the county to which he retired, and in 1959 he undertook a WHO assignment to help establish a higher institute for public health in Iran - one of many tours abroad which take up almost half of his autobiography Under the Cherry Tree, Llandysul, Gomerian Press,1969.

Parry’s family had long been farming in Caernarvonshire, where he was born. At the age of 17 he entered University College, Aberystwyth, and two years later he went to Middlesex Hospital medical school, where he acquired two clinical scholarships and the gold medal in surgery. He qualified at the age of 21 and held several house posts at the Middlesex, including those of Sampson Handley and Webb Johnson. He was RMO at the time of the influenza pandemic of 1918:‘...never a more hopeless task than mine...’. He then spent a year in the medical branch of the RAF, and three in cancer research at the Middlesex until he was warned by his former chief, Sampson Handley, ‘...that he must not remain a "lab" man.’

A curious sequence of commitments followed: less than a year as school medical officer in Bristol, a job which he found ‘...monotonous and unexciting...’, and three years in general practice with his wife in Pwllheli - near the place of his birth. He describes this period as the most exciting in their lives, and does not explain his return in 1928 to public health work in Bristol as chief assistant MOH, an appointment which was much resented by contemporaries in public health posts. Two years later he was promoted to the principal MOH post, the Ministry of Health waiving the requirement to have the post advertised.

Of the many developments for which he was responsible two merit special mention: the William Budd Health Centre in the centre of Bristol, the first in the country, and a new public health laboratory under the retiring professor of pathology in the joint University and City Health departments headed by Parry. For the rest of his life he retained his dedication to the laboratory and his opposition to the national public health laboratory service inspired by W W Topley FRS [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.561] and G S Wilson FRS,later Sir Graham [q.v.], and expressed it vigorously at the age of 90 in a letter to the BMJ. Parry retired at 56, ‘...at the earliest possible moment.’

In his local setting in Bristol he was a controversial figure, fighting primarily in and with the University, for example over the role of the City’s hospital vis-a-vis that of the University, and with Bristol general practitioners. His contemporaries describe him as colourful and refer to his cunning and his Machiavellian tactics, and to a caustic and devastating sense of humour, but also to his fierce loyalty to his staff. In this context, the steadfast and inspired support which he received in the post-war period from his deputy, Robert Wofinden [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.473] who succeeded and predeceased him, must be recorded.

In 1924 he married Elsie Joan Williams, daughter of Percy Edwin Williams, a chemical engineer, who was herself a medical practitioner. They had two sons and two daughters; one son and one daughter followed their parents into medicine.

WG Harding

[Brit.med.J., 1986,293,397]

(Volume VIII, page 368)

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