Lives of the fellows

Brian David Owen Owen-Smith

b.29 May 1938 d.11 December 2013
BA Cantab(1960) MB BChir(1963) MRCS LRCP(1963) DPhysMed(1970) MRCP(1970) DHMSA DPMSA

Brian Owen-Smith was a consultant in rheumatology and rehabilitation, and medical director of Donald Wilson House, a unit for younger disabled people, at St Richard’s Hospital, Chichester. Through much of his career, and into his retirement, he focused with single-minded determination on understanding the role of uric acid in starvation, hibernation and during pregnancy.

Brian was born in Addington, Surrey, the younger son of Cyril Robert Smith who, after a distinguished war service, became a director of the GPO (General Post Office), and his wife Margaret Jane (née Hughes). From Dulwich College, Brian went to Queens’ College, Cambridge, in 1957. He qualified MB BChir from Guy’s Hospital in 1963. Although at first sight he didn’t appear to have the physique of an athlete, he rowed, played rugby, was a diver and played most ball games. He also moved with surprising agility on a squash court. He was captain of the 1st XV rugby team at Dulwich and was a keen, lifelong swimmer. He was always actively involved in sports and physical activity.

He was a house surgeon at Orpington Hospital, Kent, and then a house physician, senior house officer and registrar at Royal Berkshire Hospital and Prospect Park Hospital, Reading. In 1967 he held a Lily fellowship in clinical pharmacology at Indiana University and the Marion General Hospital, Indianapolis. Here his research involved studying the uric acid levels in blood in fasting states and re-feeding, and the nocturnal and diurnal variations in blood levels. He was fascinated by this field of work. He became intellectually hooked on the questions which his uric acid studies yielded, and throughout his consultant working life he continued his study of uric acid in joint disease, in history, and as a marker of metabolic disturbance. He wrote up his research in meticulous detail in an unpublished thesis.

On his return from the United States, Brian specialised in medicine and rheumatology. He was a registrar at Guy’s from 1967 to 1970, and gained his MRCP and diploma in physical medicine. He then spent two years at the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath. From 1972 to 1973 he was a senior registrar at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading.

In 1973 he was appointed as a consultant in rheumatology and rehabilitation in Chichester. He was very active in the field of rehabilitation, not only with Donald Wilson House, but in Europe and nationally. He invented and designed a number of gadgets and aids to assist physically disabled patients. He retired in 1998, the year The Lancet published the results of his diurnal and enteral uricolysis work (‘Salivary urate in gout, exercise and diurnal variation’ Lancet 1998 Jun 27;351[9120]:1932).

After his retirement, he continued to spend much of his time in his Bosham cottage, working on a procedure for assessing salivary urate levels as a non-intrusive method of assay to assess foetal maturity and maternal health. The pilot studies followed pregnancies and correlated foetal maturity and maternal health with uric acid levels. The mechanism for collecting specimens was at first rejected by the US Patent and Trademark Office, but Brian persevered and the decision was reversed. Mike Hughes, his cousin, then arranged for trials in five hospitals, and Brian was awaiting with optimism these independent results at the time of his death.

Brian obtained diplomas in the history of medicine and in the philosophy of medicine from the Society of Apothecaries and, in 1998, he established the West Sussex History of Medicine Society, a thriving organisation which meets for five Saturday mornings every year in the autumn.

He was also involved in an excavation carried out by the archaeology department of University College, London, which examined Benjamin Franklin’s House in Craven Street, London, previously the site of William Hewson’s School of Anatomy. As a result, in 2000, he was invited to give the Thomas Dent Mütter Lecture to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (‘Benjamin Franklin and the Hewson Anatomy School’), of which he was justly proud.

In 1966 he married Rose Ponsonby, the daughter of Matthew, second Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede. They had a son, Tim, and a daughter, Emma. Rose predeceased him, and Brian spent his final years living near his daughter and two grandchildren, which gave him great satisfaction.

Michael W N Nicholls

(Volume XII, page web)

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