Lives of the fellows

Richard Douglas Tonkin

b.6 June 1915 d.18 May 2014
MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BS Lond(1939) MRCP(1945) MD(1946) FRCP(1955)

Richard Tonkin was a consultant gastroenterologist at Westminster Hospital, London. He was a physician of the old school, relying mainly on careful history taking, shrewd and thorough clinical observation and examination to achieve an accurate diagnosis. He was also without question a quintessential English gentleman. He was born in London, the son of Thomas Jobling Tonkin, a medical practitioner, and Ida Mary Tonkin née Foster, and was educated at St Paul’s School in London. He qualified from St George’s Hospital in 1939, and then served in the Royal Air Force from 1941 to 1946.

From January 1947 until September 1949 he was a senior registrar at Westminster Hospital, and in November 1950 he became an assistant physician there. In May 1951 he was appointed as a consultant physician with an interest in respiratory medicine at Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood. When Sir Arnold Stott [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.402] retired from Westminster Hospital in 1956, Richard Tonkin was appointed to fill this post. It is rumoured that when the senior chest physician at that time, Ernest Lloyd [Munk’s Roll Vol.VI, p.297], heard of the appointment, he took Richard Tonkin aside and suggested he changed his specialty! He did, and became a skilled and dedicated gastroenterologist.

At this time gastrointestinal investigations were taking a huge leap forward, particularly with the perfection of coherent fibre optic bundles by Harold Hopkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.228] at Reading University. I believe that Richard Tonkin was amongst the earliest of the London teaching hospital consultants to use these fibre optic instruments. In his inimitable style he had placed a note inside the box containing the early Hirschowitz gastroscope saying, ‘Take great care, this instrument is extremely expensive (£650) and is equally costly to repair (£120)!’ A current fibre optic gastroscope retails for tens of thousands of pounds. He and his senior registrar at the time gazed with rapture down the Hirschowitz gastroscope and had to remove it hastily as the gastric mucosa began to char as the result of the hot bulb at the distal end! The first time he got through the sigmoid colon with an early fibre optic colonoscope it took approximately three hours and there was champagne all round afterwards! The endoscopy room that was used at the time needed to be set up and dismantled every day in a room lent to him by Malcolm Milne [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.367].

Richard was a knowledgeable gastroenterologist and a kind, thoughtful and capable clinician with grave courtesy and old world charm, who treated all his patients alike regardless of status or title.

He published work on polyartertitis nodosa, pulmonary fibrosis in scleroderma, pulmonary function and gastrointestinal haemorrhage. In 1968, with John Anthony Parrish, he wrote Lecture notes on gastroenterology (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific), a book widely read by generations of medical students.

In 1939 he married Thelma Townson, also a doctor. Richard travelled widely with her, particularly to Ethiopia, and in 1972 she published a book Ethiopia with love (London, Hodder and Stoughton), with the jacket illustration and multiple line drawings drawn by their son, Peter, an accomplished artist. Thelma died in 1975 and for the next couple of years Richard spent a considerable amount of time in Jordan and was instrumental in making changes at the medical school, so students could carry out their final year of medicine there, whereas previously they needed to go to Germany. In 1977 he married Dorothy Dubrule, who was a fashion illustrator for The Daily Telegraph.

For very many years Richard had been interested in alternative and complementary medicine, and it probably is not widely known that the Research Council for Complementary Medicine (RCCM), which was founded in 1983, was the brain child of Richard Tonkin with the co-founder, Harold Wicks. He was extremely interested in this branch of medicine and was active in encouraging and publishing research projects and on the exploration of appropriate research methodologies. In 1986, the RCCM established a scientific journal Complementary Medical Research, perhaps the first journal in this field, which later became Complementary Therapies in Medicine. He had occasional meetings with Prince Charles, exploring the whole issue of complementary and alternative medicine. Largely as a result of Richard’s initiative, the Department of Health undertook an enquiry and review of the subject.

Richard died peacefully at his home in Islington, London, within a month of his 99th birthday, and was survived by his wife Duthy and his only son Peter.

Ronald Zeegen

(Volume XII, page web)

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