Lives of the fellows

Judith Eve Kingston

b.24 April 1949 d.24 January 2016
BSc Bristol(1970) MB ChB(1973) DCH(1976) MRCP(1977) FRCP(1991) FRCPCH(1997)

Judith Eve Kingston (or ‘Dr K’ as she was affectionately known to her colleagues and patients) was a paediatric oncologist at Great Ormond Street and the Royal London hospitals. The people who attended her thanksgiving and memorial services provided a panorama of her life and work. In addition to family members, the occasion brought together friends and colleagues from every period of her life and work. There were friends from her primary school at Love Lane in Rayleigh, Essex. There were class mates from Westcliff High School and fellow students from Bristol University and Bristol Royal Infirmary, where she trained and worked as a junior doctor. And there were many colleagues from the hospitals she served, including Addenbrooke’s, where she was a registrar in paediatrics, St Bartholomew’s, where she was a senior lecturer in paediatric oncology, and Great Ormond Street and the Royal London. There were also parents of children who had been under her care and adults she had treated as children and who now had children of their own. And there were friends who knew her through the church she was brought up in, and friends who knew her through her family. Through all her dedication and commitment to her work, she maintained lifelong friends from every stage of her life.

She came from a farming background, the youngest child and only daughter of Edward Norman Kingston and Evelyn (‘Eve’) Grace Kingston. She was brought up with her three brothers on the family farm, where she developed a love of nature that created in her a deep respect for all living things. Even her pet rabbit had a proper funeral. She had a lifelong love for the conservation and preservation of nature, and even created her own wild flower garden. She also developed the family non-conformist spirit, and was sometimes a law unto herself. She inherited her mother’s brains and thirst for knowledge and doing crosswords. Both had the distinction of appearing on TV quiz shows in the 1960s. From her father she inherited very different characteristics, notably a love of speed. She always bought the latest VW Golf, which resulted in her family and colleagues being reluctant to be her passengers and also led to an increase in police income. In addition, she inherited her father’s disregard for tidiness and when her office could no longer contain all the paperwork, her home became an extended office and magazine library.

She never married, though apparently she graciously turned down one offer from a 10-year-old she was treating. For her, her children were her extended family. Marriage, she once said, would have been unfair to her husband. Her work became the love of her life, and she embodied the Protestant work ethic, the idea that work is not just a job or a career, but a disciplined vocation. Her work took priority, and for her that meant her patients and their families. As one parent put it: ‘There was nothing she would not do, no battle she would not enter, on their behalf!’ This was a constant theme of the tributes that poured in from all quarters after her death, in letters, cards and on social media. She was a ‘modern day Florence Nightingale’, ‘the star of her profession’, ‘a beacon of hope for families facing terrible fears and pain’.

Yet she never sought the limelight nor recognition for her work. The only reward she wanted was the recovery of the children she treated. Nothing gave her greater satisfaction and fulfilment than the knowledge that the survival rate of children with leukaemia had dramatically increased during the years of her medical service and that she had played her part in it. She was a clinical research fellow at Oxford University from 1980 to 1983, and her research was always linked to her day to day treatments. It was, however, after she went to St Bartholomew’s in 1983 that the treatment of leukaemia and cancer in children, especially in the area of retinoblastoma, developed significantly. Under the guiding hand of James Malpas, she teamed up with another young consultant from Moorfields Eye Hospital, John Hungerford, and Nick Plowman. Their joint collaboration marked a revolution in the way retinoblastoma was perceived and treated. Until then it had largely been seen as an ophthalmological condition, and rarely treated in conjunction with cancer expertise. Her pioneering work developing the treatment of retinoblastoma with chemotherapy transformed the options available, and as a result transformed the lives of so many babies, young children and their families. John Hungerford has written that: ‘The world of expertise in retinoblastoma is totally agreed that Judith’s contribution has been paramount to the current world wide treatment of this tumour in thousands of children worldwide.’ She was the director of one of two national services for retinoblastoma, and had articles published in over 200 publications, becoming internationally recognised for her work. In July 2015, just six months before she died, she received a standing ovation at an international medical conference in Paris, something she typically forgot to mention to her family and even colleagues apparently.

Alongside her hospital work, she worked closely with two children’s trusts, the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) and the Paul O’Gorman Lifeline and the Venik Trust, which involved her in travel to Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. The foundation of CHECT had been stimulated by her work. It sought to provide community and family support alongside hospital and medical treatment. Kenton ward at St Bartholomew’s under the guidance of Judith became a by word for family care and support. The parents and families of children being treated formed a supportive network, which endures to the present day. The founder of CHECT has written that ‘she was one of the main forces behind CHECT, understanding the need for continuing support of families in addition to the support being offered in clinics and wards’. The closure of Kenton ward, which had meant so much to her, was one of the saddest moments of her life. She moved to Great Ormond Street and the Royal London to join a distinguished team of haematology and oncology paediatricians, and continued to give the same dedication to her work, but it was clear that the new management and target-oriented direction of the NHS was alien to her experience and personality. She continued to be generous with her time and knowledge, sharing 134 contributions to publications through ResearchGate, the medical sharing website, and through her encouragement of research and medical students. One of her last public engagements, in October 2015, was to address the inaugural National Student Paediatrics Conference in Manchester.

Personally, she will be remembered for her lovely smile, her infectious laughter and quiet humour, her calm authority, her dedication to her patients and their families, and for the personal letters she wrote. She saw her children not just as sick patients, but as people with a future and potential, and as children with families surrounding them who needed support as well. She had planned to retire in September 2017, but that was not to be. She died suddenly from sepsis early on a Sunday morning in Southend Hospital, having travelled to work on the Friday as usual at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She did not have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of retirement, to reconnect with family and friends, to develop her love of music, gardening and the countryside, and doubtless to continue her voluntary work with the two trusts to which she was so devoted. But perhaps departing ‘in harness’ as it were was a fitting end to a life lived for others. In the words of Pelham Allen of CHECT: ‘She gave her all for as long as she could. Few of us will reach the end of our lives knowing that we devoted every minute of every day of a long working life to the cause we were most passionate about.’ She has left the world so much richer for her life, but so much poorer by her death.

Derek Kingston

(Volume XII, page web)

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