Lives of the fellows

Richard Bertram Godwin-Austin

b.4 October 1935 d.3 December 2017
MB BS Lond(1959) MRCP(1963) MD(1968) FRCP(1976)

Richard Godwin-Austen was a consultant neurologist in Nottingham and Derby. He was often asked why he chose to become a doctor, to which he would answer that it was because, as a child, when he was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he found that saying ‘I want to be a doctor’ scored high grown-up approval. In fact, this disingenuous explanation was far from the truth. There were many factors that led to his entering the profession including, to some degree, the character and qualities of his antecedents.

He was rightly proud of his family heritage, which could be traced back to the reign of Richard II. Among his forebears there were men who had served with great military distinction, beginning with General Henry Godwin, who served in the 19th century Burmese Wars. Then a later generation fought in the famous battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War, and finally he had an uncle who was a general in the Second World War. More significantly from the point of view of his own development, his 19th century ancestors also included two fellows of the Royal Society, Robert Alfred Cloyne Godwin-Austen and Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen. As well as his scientific interests, the latter extensively surveyed the Karakoram mountain range in Asia, including establishing the height of the world’s second highest mountain K2 (also known as Mount Godwin-Austen).

Richard was born in London and almost immediately travelled to Cyprus with his family, where his father, Robert Annesley Godwin-Austen, was posted as a surveyor for the Colonial Office. His mother was Catherine Beryl Godwin-Austen née Odling. When Cyprus was threatened with invasion, Richard and his brother were sent to South Africa, where they spent the war years. He returned to England in 1945 and was educated at Boxgrove School and Charterhouse. He began his medical studies at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School a few years after the establishment of the National Health Service. He qualified in 1959, when he decided to train in neurology.

In 1961, he married Jane Himely, who had also trained at St Thomas’ Hospital as a Nightingale nurse. They first of all moved to Devon in order for him to begin his early training at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. In 1963, he returned to London, where he worked as a senior registrar for two physicians. He was first at the Middlesex Hospital under Michael Kremer [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.265], who embodied the qualities Richard most admired in a physician: excellence as a clinician, dedication to his work and those who worked with him, and great patience and understanding towards his patients. Richard always felt that this was an example he should follow. Again, as a senior registrar, he also worked for Roger Gilliatt [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.195], at the National Hospital, Queen Square. Gilliatt was both brilliant and privileged. He was the most senior physician in the specialty, and had achieved great distinction for his contribution to the science. He carried considerable power and could make or break the careers of his junior staff.

It was Gilliatt who emphasised in his characteristically forceful way that it was essential to be appointed as a consultant before the age of 35. By 1970, the clock was ticking, but it was a difficult time to be looking for such a post as there were very few positions available. While Richard has still working at Queen Square, a colleague suggested that he should apply for a consultancy in Nottingham. This friend had previously worked with the senior physician there, and was in fact considered the selected candidate. They both thought it would be a good experience for Richard to attend a consultant interview, although the decision had essentially been made. To their surprise, Richard was offered the job. In July 1970, he was appointed to the Nottingham, Derby and South Lincolnshire hospitals. Later, in 1976, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

By now, he and Jane had a son and a daughter, so the appointment came at a critical time. The family moved to Nottingham, where he would spend the rest of his professional life. This meant he travelled on a daily basis between Nottingham and Derby and, once a month, drove over to see patients at the Boston Infirmary.

He made a great contribution to clinical medicine. As a practising physician, he had been engaged in clinical research since 1968. His book The Parkinson’s disease handbook (London, Sheldon, 1984) was a major resource for patients and their families. He was appointed as clinical director of neurosciences, chairman of the Sheffield Regional Advisory Committee and as a clinical teacher at the University of Nottingham.

As a civilian he was appointed High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, a voluntary appointment with many duties, but he was especially interested in the court sessions, which it was part of his role to attend. (He often said that, had he not been a doctor, he would have read law.)

In June 1996, he and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident, in which Jane died. Richard was devastated at the loss and, being badly injured himself, was forced to consider early retirement soon afterwards. It was characteristic of his determination and innate optimism that he did not give in to grief. Instead, he carried on seeing patients for as long as such consultations were viable and took great interest in working as an expert witness in court cases.

Now his professional life took another turn. He was elected as president of the Association of British Neurologists, vice president of the European Federation of Neurological Societies, as well as serving on the council of the Academy of Experts, the European Board of Neurology, the Parkinson’s Disease Society and the Nottinghamshire Medico-Legal Society, in all of which he took an active part.

His relationship to the World Federation of Neurology (WFN) had begun when he first attended the World Congress in Kyoto in 1981. On that occasion, he had an opportunity to put Nottingham on the neurological map, for he presented the first clinical paper on MRI imaging. A young physicist at the University of Nottingham, Bill Moore, had built one of the first MRI scanners. He had tested the safety of his new machine by introducing into it first an onion, then a hand and finally his own head. At this point, having verified the safety of the method, he came to Richard for help in identifying patients who would volunteer and benefit from the new diagnostic tool. These first scans of intracranial abnormalities were the subject of Richard’s paper.

After his retirement his relationship with the WFN continued as he was elected secretary-treasurer general in 1997, serving for two terms. These were formative years for the WFN in which he played a major role. Protocols of governance were initiated, as well as the basis of training centres and programmes.

1997 was also a significant year as he married again. He had known his second wife, Sally (née Toller), in the 1950s. She had moved to live in the United States and their ways had separated before his first marriage. By serendipity, they met again and found new happiness.

His own memoir Seizing opportunities: the reminiscences of a physician (Durham, Memoir Club) written in 2008, is full of interesting anecdotes, for he loved to tell a story, but fails to capture the sort of person he was.

He had great love for people. This came out in the warmth of his welcome and infectious smile. In short, he was a great enthusiast for many things – for the countryside and country sports, for gardens and especially for trees. He was always planting trees and giving trees to friends and family. On holiday, he would seize any opportunity to visit a nursery and return with some unusual find, its branches sticking into the back of his neck and out of the window. To this could be added his love of dogs, opera, the Garrick Club, parties, travel, politics and the NHS, on behalf of which he wrote numerous letters to the press, only a few of which were published. He was a true collector. His collections included porcelain and pottery of many cultures, Chinese snuff bottles and paintings by David Bomberg. On the creative side, he was both a good amateur musician and watercolour artist. He was also a garden designer, placing a bridge or a pond in exactly the right place. He loved puddings and pudding wines, and planned to write a book on the subject, sadly never written.

Most importantly, through all the sadness and anxieties of his life, he held to a deep religious faith, which gave him the joy he passed on to others.

Richard died suddenly of a heart attack. He was survived by his wife Sally, two children, Jonathan and Alice, six grandchildren and three stepsons.

Sally Godwin-Austen

[World Neurology Richard Godwin-Austen 6 March 2018 – accessed 20 March 2019; Charterhouse obituaries – accessed 20 March 2019]

(Volume XII, page web)

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