Lives of the fellows

Arthur Cecil Alport

b.25 January 1880 d.18 April 1959
MB ChB Edin(1905) MD Edin(1919) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1937 resigned 1947)

Cecil Alport was born at Beaufort West in South Africa where his father, Arthur Cuthbert Alport, worked in a family business which he had started after an adventurous beginning in seeking his fortune in the Cariboo goldfields. His mother was formerly Eleanor Thwaites. After a local schooling he went to Edinburgh University. For some years he practised in Johannesburg in partnership with his brother-in-law, but returning to England he served in the 1914-18 War, first in South Africa and then in Macedonia. After the war he was appointed a specialist in tropical medicine at the Ministry of Pensions and in 1922 was appointed assistant to the director of the medical unit at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, which had been set up under Dr Wilfred Harris and then under Professor F. S. Langmead.

During his time there until 1937 he concentrated his teaching upon basic clinical signs at the bedside, particularly on the introductory stages of clinical clerking during the students’ first weeks on the wards. He was an enthusiastic and dogmatic expounder of clinical methods and had a simple and downright approach to diagnosis which the average student much appreciated, though some were less convinced than others by his explanations. He was completely sincere, outspoken and emphatic, and without fears or misgivings about the effects of what he said upon others if he was satisfied he was in the right.

His frankness was sometimes taken for rudeness and his blunt comments at times provoked irritation though rarely for very long. His nature was direct and unsubtle, and he had a gusto which carried him through difficult times with humour and determination. Alport enjoyed companionship and argument and he built theories on many subjects, not least on the principles of golf. He was wont to demonstrate his latest and most perfect technique of mastering the mashie shot in the small crowded laboratory at St. Mary’s, but his handicap on the golf course in fact never quite fell into single figures.

In 1937 Alexander Fleming suggested to Alport that he should apply for the chair of medicine at Cairo University. The decision to accept was fully in keeping with his character, and his work as professor of clinical medicine and director of the medical unit at the King Fuad I Hospital was to have far-reaching consequences. During six turbulent years he pursued his ideals, both medical and sociological, and described those aims and achievements in a publication which he called One hour of justice: the black book of the Egyptian hospitals (1946). His description of the dispatch of five hundred copies of his privately stencilled pamphlet—no printer in Cairo dared print it—most of which he delivered himself, makes exciting reading.

His burning determination to achieve reforms in the Cairo hospitals and his tempestuous attacks upon all manner of irregularities, not only in the medical world but in other spheres as well, showed a degree of moral courage not often equalled. He resigned from the chair in October 1943 and on December 23rd he left Egypt for good. His fight was against corruption, nepotism, bribery and dishonesty. In his crusade he did not hesitate to bring in politics, religion, and major questions of Government policy.

He left feeling he had lost his fight, and though he was not downhearted his spirit was saddened by the feeling that he had been let down by those who might have stood up for him and his battle for better standards. In 1947 he resigned his Fellowship as a protest against those who misread his sincerity as mere stupidity and obstinacy, although a Bill for the reform of the medical faculty had been brought before the Egyptian legislature in 1944.

In 1907 he married Janet, daughter of James McCall. They had two children: Arthur Cuthbert, who died young, and Cuthbert James McCall, later Lord Alport, who was Minister for Commonwealth Relations in Mr Macmillan’s Government.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1959, 1, 1191-2; Lancet, 1959, 1, 947-8; Times, 20 Apr. 1959; A. C. Alport. The Lighter side of the War. London, [1934] (p); and The House of curious. London, [1937].]

(Volume V, page 10)

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