Lives of the fellows

Arthur Wellwood Ferguson

b.20 February 1923 d.27 June 2014
BA Cantab(1944) MB BChir(1947) DCH(1950) MRCP(1951) FRCP(1972)

Arthur Ferguson was the first full-time consultant paediatrician at Bedford General Hospital and oversaw a transformation in children’s medical care in the town. Arriving in Bedford in 1963, and contracted to share his time with the Luton’s Children’s Annex, Arthur quickly became aware that children's medicine required more resources. On his retirement in 1985, he left a thriving children’s service in Bedford with two full-time consultants, an isolation unit, a neonatal unit, a child development centre and plans for a new children’s ward.

Arthur was born in Glasgow, the eldest of three sons, and the family soon moved to Sheffield. His father William John Wellwood Ferguson, known as ‘Jack’, was an ophthalmic surgeon who researched into lighting in coal mines to prevent miner’s nystagmus. His mother Hilda, the daughter of a Cumberland rector, suffered severe postnatal depression after Arthur’s birth and was unable to show him affection for the first six months. Arthur believed that this underlay the anxiety-depression that was to periodically dog him in later life. Arthur knew he wanted to be a doctor by the age of nine and his later decision to specialise in children’s medicine may perhaps have arisen from the empathy with children’s vulnerability that arose from his early experience. His wife Judy tells of the extraordinary ability that he had to calm distressed babies just by his touch.

Arthur’s medical training began in wartime years at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for him a temple of scientific thought, but it was also a time of japes and great friendships. In the days of gated colleges, he became a committed night climber of college and university buildings, the pinnacle of his achievement being the Senate House roof! He was also a tin-hatted student member of the Home Guard, riding a bicycle with a Lewis gun across his handlebars.

Arthur greatly enjoyed his final year of the Cambridge tripos studying physiology and he always remained a great clinical observer and a keen contributor to research projects. Between 1954 and 1996 he published a dozen papers in medical journals, often as lead or sole author. Many of these concerned neonatal and childhood diabetes. The last of the series reported on the molecular genetics of neonatal diabetes in a family he had treated over three generations. While training at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Arthur met Mary (née Turner), his first wife and mother of his three sons. Arthur’s medical career took him next to Sheffield. In his second house job there he worked in Sheffield Children’s Hospital and realised that paediatrics was for him. He progressed via Warwickshire to Bristol, as medical officer to university students and then junior paediatric registrar, and to a senior registrar position at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.

Most of Arthur's career was spent as a consultant paediatrician in Bedford from 1963 to 1985, where he oversaw the transformation of children's medical services. He established a second consultant post in 1973, allowing him to relinquish his sessions in Luton and to focus his energies on his plans for Bedford. In the mid 1970s a four-bed children’s isolation unit was added to the children’s ward, relieving pressure on the few cubicles in the main ward. He also set up a neonatal unit and the Mary Ferguson unit for parents of sick children to enable parents to sleep close by. Closest to his heart was the establishment of a purpose-built child development centre attached to the town’s school for handicapped children, fulfilling a long-held wish for a permanent home for the service. It was jointly run by nursing and educational staff, including a physiotherapist and a speech and language teacher, and both consultant paediatricians spent a day a week there. Arthur contributed to planning of a new children’s ward and this bore fruit ten years after his retirement, when a new ward, neonatal unit and obstetric unit were completed and opened by the Queen in 1995, attended by Arthur and by his former consultant colleague Paul Barnes. Acutely aware of the value of hands-on experience in training, in the late 1970s Arthur set up a link with University College Hospital, London, providing a month’s experience with Bedford’s clinical team for two medical students from UCH every month. The final measure of Arthur’s success is the enduring gratitude of patients and their parents.

Arthur was an often serious-minded man who set himself high standards and found a wonder and joy in humanity, in the natural world and in its Creator. He had diverse interests and a strong intellect and was capable of joy and fun. In private life his most enduring passion was bird-watching. He kept a journal ‘bird notes’ from 1943 for the rest of his life and his love of the natural world shines from its pages. He was an enthusiast for Shakespeare and he could always summon up an apt quote. Strongly wedded to his Scottish heritage, he would wear the kilt when on holiday, loved walking in the Scottish hills and learned the bagpipes while at Cambridge. His sons have indelible memories of him practising the pipes in the small hallway of their childhood bungalow home in Edinburgh. In his retirement he took up the classical guitar and choral singing. Arthur was an excellent black-and-white photographer, developing and printing himself, and showed a talent for watercolour painting. He wrote poetry, enjoyed cycling, was proud of his home-made elderflower wine and left a wealth of beautifully-documented family history. He had a strong sense of justice and was active in the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons and the Bedford Society’s campaign to save Bedford from the 1960s planners. Arthur was also deeply interested in matters of the spirit. His twin explorations of nature and of the significance of Jesus’ life were two sides of the same coin, and he would often give insightful ministry at Quaker meetings.

Arthur’s first wife Mary died of cancer in 1975 and her loss hit him hard. In 1983, Arthur married Judy, marking the beginning of another very happy 30-year marriage sharing their joint enthusiasms and their growing band of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Arthur’s happy face beams from a photo taken on a day out birdwatching on the moors during his retirement.

Andrew Ferguson
Paul Barnes
Judy Ferguson
Evelien Rooke

(Volume XII, page web)

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