Lives of the fellows

Terence John Boris Geffen

b.17 September 1921 d.28 October 2015
MB BS Lond(1943) MD(1948) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1970)

Terence John Boris Geffen (‘Terry’) was a doctor who spent much of his career as a civil servant. He was involved in the early stages of the National Health Service, as well as in many important decisions affecting public health and medical policy.

Terry was a Londoner for most of his life but, having been born in Bradford and transported from Yorkshire in early infancy, he claimed a valid reason for his life-long support of Yorkshire football and cricket teams. He came from a medical family, his father, Maximilian Walter Geffen, having been a general practitioner in west London. His mother was Mary Florence Reid Geffen née Spero. After attending St Paul’s School, where he won a scholarship, Terry gained a place at University College, and then at University College Hospital (UCH) to study medicine. Passing the first MB in 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, his early student years were spent not in Gower Street but in various places to which the university had been evacuated: Cardiff, Leatherhead and Leavesden. The clinical years brought him to UCH however, where, after qualifying in 1943, he became a house physician.

On the last days of this house appointment, on 6th June 1944, he was seconded to tend to injured soldiers after the Normandy landings and, soon after this, was in the Army. His wartime Army service was initially with a field ambulance in Italy, and later in Greece, where he was attached to the 30th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, serving in this for nearly two years.

After demobilisation in 1947, he continued his medical training in a number of London hospitals, eventually returning to UCH as a registrar and senior medical registrar, working for Lord Amulree [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.12] and Sir Max Rosenheim [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.39], amongst others. While fully qualified for consultant physician posts by then, the 1950s were bleak times for such appointments, and Terry decided to join the Ministry of Health (which later became the Department of Health). There he rose through the ranks from medical officer, senior medical officer, principal medical officer, and in his last 10 years of service, principal senior medical officer, serving for much of this time under Sir George Godber [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web].

His work in the Department ranged widely over the years, but in particular he played key roles in the fields of communicable diseases, vaccination and immunisation, and food safety. Diphtheria was gradually being eliminated by immunisation, but one unexpected finding was that children who happened to be incubating poliomyelitis when being vaccinated often suffered severe and selective paralysis in the muscles near the vaccination site. It was realised that the local injury and the resulting hyperaemia were the relevant factors, and that any local injury could have the same consequence. Terry was deeply involved in the analysis of this important issue.

Towards the end of his Civil Service career, while serving as director of the communicable diseases division in the Department of Health and Social Security, he was the UK representative on delegations from the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication programme which visited the Yemen and Somalia in 1979. The last known natural case of smallpox had occurred in Somalia, and following the delegation's investigations there, the WHO was able to make a declaration announcing the global eradication of smallpox, in 1980. Smallpox was the first disease, and is still the only human disease, to be eradicated globally by deliberate intervention.

Although Terry retired from the Civil Service on reaching the age of 61, he continued in employment until he was 80, first taking on a role advising on potential or alleged cases of medical negligence for the North West Thames Regional Health Authority, then, in what may well have been one of the first roles of its kind, working as an in-house medical adviser for Capsticks, a law firm specialising in medical negligence cases. Even after his 80th birthday he continued in various voluntary roles, working for organisations including Richmond Local Involvement Network (Richmond LINk), a forerunner to Healthwatch Richmond, which promoted public involvement in the improvement of health and social care services.

Terry was a quiet and courteous man, and his professional judgements were measured and calmly considered, so those who knew him only in his work might not have realised that he was a man of strong opinions, and was prepared to stand up for them. He took part in pre-war demonstrations against Nazism and appeasement, in post-war years against British involvement in the Suez Crisis, and in later years against the invasion of Iraq. He was also involved in many environmental issues and, even in old age, was involved in protests against Heathrow expansion.

Terry had wide cultural interests, above all reading and classical music. An ardent Wagner aficionado, he admired the operas as much as he loathed the composer's anti-Semitic and racist political and moral views. He revisited Bayreuth with his wife, Judy (née Steward), for his 90th birthday celebration, having proposed to her there over 50 years earlier.

He was a keen hill-walker, taking family holidays in Scotland, Wales, the Lake District and elsewhere, and even at a great age could be seen striding purposefully up and down the more gentle hills of East Sheen.

Terry was a kind, intelligent and considerate man of great integrity, who did many good things in a quiet and unobtrusive way. He was survived by Judy, his wife of just over 50 years, and their two sons, Roger and Nigel.

Harold Lambert

(Volume XII, page web)

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