Lives of the fellows

Richard Alfred Chambers

b.22 April 1923 d.22 January 2011
BA Oxon(1944) BM BCh(1947) FRCPC(1972) FRCP(1976)

Richard Alfred Chambers was vice dean and chairman of the neurology department at the Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and one of the most eminent neurologists in the United States. Born in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, he was the second son of Alfred Eustace Chambers, a British petroleum engineer, and his Danish wife, Anne Marie née Fredriksen. His father was frequently abroad conducting oil exploration for various British companies and travelling to places such as Mexico, India, Persia (now Iran) and Russia. During these travels he also occasionally worked for the Foreign Office as an industrial espionage agent. His grandfather, George Thomas Chambers, was a warden of St James Garlick Hithe Church in London and the family had a prestigious lineage dating back to the middle ages; an ancestor was prominent at the Court of Henry VIII.

After an idyllic childhood spent at the luxurious family estate ‘Stoney Ware’ on the Thames near Marlow, he was educated at Winchester College where he excelled, particularly in mathematics and science. He studied medicine at Balliol College, Oxford and qualified in 1947. Too young to join the forces during the Second World War, he joined the RAF as a medical officer and served from 1947 to 1949 doing medical research in toxicology. Part of his work was on snake venom and, in particular, that of the banded krait, a highly poisonous snake found principally in Vietnam. It was at the beginning of the cold war and suspicions were high that the Russians might use such toxins as weapons.

When he was demobilised, he decided to train as a neurologist and, after working in several London hospitals, he accepted a fellowship in 1950 at Boston City Hospital (BCH) which, at the time, was most prestigious medical research institution in New England. There he undertook research with Joseph Foley and Derek Denny-Brown [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.146]. The following year he moved to Harvard Medical School as fellow in neurology from 1951 to 1953 and then returned to the UK as Will Edmonds scholar at the Royal College of Physicians from 1955 to 1956.

Invited to Canada, he set up a new neurology department at the University of Toronto before moving back to the US in 1960 as associate professor, then professor, at the Seton Hall College of Medicine and Dentistry in South Orange, New Jersey. Finally, in 1966, he became professor of neurology and chairman of the neurology department at the Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He spent almost 40 years there and became vice dean and chairman of the neurology department. He was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada in 1972 and of the RCP in 1976.

He and his wife were very active in charitable work in Philadelphia. They were also both patrons of the Curtis Institute of Music. A clever linguist, he spoke French and Spanish; although also fluent in German he never spoke the language after his elder brother, John, was shot down in his Lancaster bomber by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. His father had been a collector of beautiful objects and Chambers added to the collection when on his travels. Although he spent 61 years of his life in the US he never gave up his British citizenship and would remark occasionally ‘After all, I am British you know’. He idolised Winston Churchill who had given him a lift when he was a student at Winchester.

At BCH in 1950, he met Margaret née Doherty (‘Marbie’), who was also doing neurological research. They married six years later in her home town of Andover, Massachusetts. Marbie predeceased him in 2002 and, when he died, he was survived by seven nephews, six nieces, and various grandnieces and nephews.

RCP editor

[Burke Magliozzi Funeral Home www.currentobituary.com/ShowObit.aspx?id=89848&member_id=65 ; Invaluable Auction catalogue www.invaluable.co.uk/auction-lot/pair-of-vases-3006-c-da241d8050 - both accessed 1 July 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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