Lives of the fellows

Robert Hugh Jackson

b.9 May 1918 d.5 October 2013
MC(1945) OBE(2000) BM BCh Oxon(1942) MRCP(1955) FRCP(1971) FRCPCH(1996)

It was in 1964, whilst working as a consultant paediatrician in Gateshead, that Hugh Jackson had his eureka moment, which shaped the rest of his career. A child died after having been admitted as a result of taking 12 of his depressed mother’s amitriptyline tablets. He remembered the mother repeating over and over, ‘nobody told me they would do him any harm’. This was an accident and could have been prevented. At the time more than 7,000 children were being admitted annually to hospitals across the UK because of aspirin poisoning alone. In the United States attempts were being made to design child-resistant packaging and Hugh took it upon himself to lobby the authorities to adopt these. He was appointed to a British Standards Institute committee, which had the remit of finding something which would resist the explorative efforts of the majority of adventurous three-year-olds, whilst at the same time allowing access to medication for the majority of arthritic and often elderly people. They were successful and, two years after the introduction of the new packaging, the number of children admitted with aspirin poisoning had fallen to less than 2,000 a year, with very few deaths. In retrospect this was one of the most successful passive safety measures ever introduced.

The importance of injuries as a cause of death and morbidity was becoming more obvious, and he applied his skills to not only treating injured children, but taking one step back and asking ‘why did this happen?’. He took detailed histories of the circumstances surrounding the accident and took the hospital photographer out to recreate the scene. His collection of enormously powerful and graphic stories was used to educate professionals from all sectors that injury prevention was their business. Starting locally, he saw how effective this could be and, in 1976, along with his colleague Donald Court [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.77], he persuaded the King’s Fund to give them the resources to found the Child Accident Prevention Trust, which took his work to a new level. He used his charm and persuasive skills to motivate planners, architects, engineers and other designers of the environment. He had the ability to speak to other professionals not like a doctor, but with the authority of a doctor .Safety glass in doors, wider use of smoke alarms and safer streets for children are amongst the things that we now take for granted but which needed to be hard fought for. A visible lasting tribute is evident in the plastic tops of many ball point pens. Adolescent children were occasionally choking and dying having inhaled the pen top. Whilst the solution could have been to tell them not to chew their pen tops, Hugh recognised a passive solution was needed. Working with David Mathias, a local ENT surgeon, they found that an opening of only 4mm was needed to allow in sufficient air to prevent death. That little hole is one of his lasting legacies.

He was born in Oldham, the son of Robert Ashton Jackson, a medical practitioner, and Frances Mary Jackson née Harper. There was never any doubt what he would do. After Oundle School he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where the onset of war led to an accelerated course and his being in the first cohort of students to do their clinical training at the Radcliffe. Prior to the war, Oxford students had run a weekly boys club for less privileged young children from the city. The war stopped these, but Jackson and his fellow student Keith Hodgkin resurrected the club. In 1942 they took two boys on a camping trip to Jura, which was recalled 65 years later by one of the participants as having had a profoundly positive affect on his life. It also affected Jackson: for the rest of his life he always considered the social as well as the physical aspects of ill health.

One year after qualifying saw him in the Army, where he was a medical officer on the front line, moving up from North Africa through Europe. It was north of Florence that his strength and determination came into its own. He was in a unit very close to the front line when word came that a house, which was being used as shelter by a company of 30 men, had been shelled and there were many casualties. Jackson immediately set off to see what he, as the only medic in the area, could do. He was ordered not to proceed because of the danger, but he ignored the warnings. Along with two stretcher bearers, he spent 17 hours treating and rescuing the 18 survivors who were trapped in the house, all the time under bombardment. His efforts were rewarded with not one of the soldiers succumbing to their injuries and a Military Cross. The citation ended: ‘By his stamina and good humour he inspired confidence’.

On returning from the war his early experience of working with disadvantaged young boys made him opt for a career in paediatrics. This was a new specialty and he was told to go and see Sir James Spence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.386] in Newcastle, who was one of the first paediatricians and had pioneered the concept of social paediatrics. After being trained, Jackson was appointed as a consultant and asked to open paediatric units in North Shields and then Gateshead, later transferring to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. Hugh was an excellent teacher and many of his trainees became local GPs.

Following his retirement from clinical practice, Hugh continued working into his mid-80s and was a consultant for the World Health Organization. He made an enormous contribution to injury prevention worldwide. His is not a household name – as it should be – because of his innate modesty, which forced him to fly below the radar. His work on standards led to huge improvements to product safety and he played a key role, along with Barry Pless, in the founding of the journal Injury Prevention.

He was a man with a social conscience, who recognised the vulnerability of children and that it was the responsibility of adults to provide a place in which they could grow up in relative safety. He, however, recognised the need for adventure and continued taking disadvantaged young men away for adventure holidays, often back to the scene of his first trip to Scotland.

He was enormously proud when he was awarded an OBE in 2000 and the James Spence medal of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Hugh was a modest and gracious man, who never seemed to get angry. He was filled with shame when he injured himself quite seriously when falling off a roof at his country retreat at the age of 75.

He married Shirley (née Williams) in 1945, a doctor whom he met whilst working in Oxford, and they had three boys, Rob, Peter and John. His wife and one son predeceased him. He has left the world a better and safer place for children, even if sometimes a bit frustrating for adults.

Sir Alan Craft

[The Telegraph 14 October 2013; The Guardian 17 October 2013; Magdalen College Alumni News Hugh Jackson OBE – accessed 14 January 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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