Lives of the fellows

Stanley Alstead

b.6 June 1905 d.4 April 1992
CBE(1960) MB ChB Liverp(1929) MD(1931) MRCP(1935) FRFPS Glas(1935) FRCP(1945) FRCPE((1956) FRSE(1959) FRCPG(1962) HonFRCPG(1979)

Stanley Alstead was born in Wigan, Lancashire, the son of Robert Alstead OBE JP, a woollen manufacturer, and his wife Sara Ann née Deakin, daughter of a cotton weaving technologist. He was educated at Wigan Grammar School and Liverpool University from where he graduated in medicine. After junior house posts at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary and the Royal Southern Hospital, he spent a year as RMO at Birmingham City Hospital and another year as RMO at the Hope Hospital, Salford. In 1932 he was appointed Pollok lecturer in pharmacology in the University of Glasgow and assistant physician to the outpatient wing of the Western Infirmary of Glasgow, where he was able to develop his interest in clinical medicine - an interest which was paramount throughout his professional career. His early years at Gilmorehill were spent in research, giving him valuable experience in the disciplines of laboratory procedures, but his real interest remained in the clinical field.

In 1936 he joined the clinical staff at Stobhill General Hospital. It was there that he developed an interest in clinical pharmacology and his research projects often took the form of exploring the validity of current opinion and teaching. This early work formed the basis of the modern specialty of clinical pharmacology which sets the standards of safety and efficacy of the drugs we use today. This challenging attitude towards tradition stemmed from the influence of a remarkable man, his father Robert Alstead who delighted in the beauties of nature and of language but openly confessed himself ‘the enemy of convention’. Stanley had a similar approach to life and he recalled that on occasions, as a student at Liverpool, he was depressed by the authoritarian and uncritical attitude of some of his teachers.

With the advent of the second world war Stanley found himself in a reserved occupation but persuaded the university to release him. He joined the RAMC and spent the next four years in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Egypt as officer in charge of various medical divisions in military hospitals. He was mentioned in despatches and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. On demobilization in 1946 he was appointed physician to the Highlands and Islands and on the unexpected death of Noah Morris [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.297] he was recalled to Glasgow in 1948 to take the chair of regius professor of materia medica, with charge of a clinical unit at Stobhill Hospital.

One of the significant events in his life as a professor was his decision to help with the medical care of 600 patients in an old workhouse hospital, then called Foresthall. He pointed out to the board of management that these patients, mostly destitute and forgotten, were now entitled to the same care as that which had been bestowed on patients in the former voluntary hospitals. After a few years this work was taken over by W F Anderson - now Sir Ferguson Anderson, late David Cargill professor of geriatric medicine in the University of Glasgow - and it became one of the most notable geriatric hospitals in the United Kingdom. As in so many other fields, Stanley had pioneered the development of modern medical practice in the care of the elderly.

He was an office bearer in the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, which was at that time called the Faculty. A Visitor (vice-president), he would stimulate the Fellows in their responsibilities as custodians of a licensing body dating back to the 16th century. As president, 1956-58, he encouraged many younger Fellows to take an active interest in the postgraduate activities of the Faculty. He approached industry for financial help in an effort to renovate the interior of the building and provide a setting worthy of an ancient medical incorporation on the threshold of a revolutionary period in British medical history. In later years his great service to the College and postgraduate education, both at home and abroad, was recognized by his being made an honorary Fellow of the College. At the same time, he did his share of work on national committees in London and elsewhere, including the British Pharmacopoeia Commission.

In 1965 he was invited to be honorary professor in the University of East Africa and honorary physician to the Kenyatta National Hospital, Nairobi. By his leadership he strengthened the bonds between Glasgow and the University or East Africa, encouraging many talented doctors from Glasgow to contribute to the setting up of a medical school in that country. Stanley Alstead always treated students as junior colleagues to whom he was trying to present a truthful and helpful account of clinical and technical problems. He believed that medicine must be taught at the bedside. The student was given his proper place; he was made to understand that he was a member of a clinical unit and that he had an important part to play in the proper functioning of a hospital. These young students queued to sign on for his teaching clinics; they literally ran to his department on enrolment day to ensure their places in his unit.

His enthusiasm was also seen in the lecture theatre. For him, every lecture was a great occasion and he never underestimated the critical acumen of his audience. He always had a slight feeling of apprehension before he entered the theatre and he was convinced that he had failed in his mission if at the end of an hour he did not find himself in a state of mental exhilaration and physical exhaustion. His teaching and personality had a far reaching influence on thousands of doctors who had the privilege of experiencing his training, compassion, integrity and superb clinical ability.

Stanley published many papers relating to clinical research and was joint editor of a Textbook of medical treatment, edited Dunlop, Davidson & Alstead, Edinburgh, Livingstone, 7th edition 1958 and of several later editions. He was joint editor of Dillings clinical pharmacology, 1960, and also of later editions, which became the standard textbook in many medical schools in Britain and overseas for those studying the use of drugs in therapy.

He had a great love of words, particularly the language of the Bible and poetry. He was an authority on William Shakespeare and wrote about the medical knowledge of the bard. He was also a man of deep religious conviction. His belief in what is called ‘The Good Life’ never wavered. As a guide to men and women to live in a way worthy of the Christian ethic he rejoiced in St Paul’s declaration to mankind (v Corinthians 1,13) saying ‘This approach to religion makes a powerful appeal to me. I realize that what Paul called "charity" means "compassion".’ He was himself a man of deep compassion; a devout churchman and a devoted husband and father.

He loved Dunblane, its . people and its cathedral, and he felt honoured to serve as office bearer m the Society of Friends of this ancient church. He retained his remarkable zest for life until a few days before he died. Indeed, he was working for some hours in his beloved garden. Displayed in his unit at Glasgow, for the benefit of students and staff, were aphorisms from various philosophers; one from Sydenham read: ‘I have weighed in a nice and scrupulous balance whether it is better to serve men or to be praised by them and I prefer the former.’ This was Stanley Alstead.

Sir Thomas J Thomson

[Brit.med.J., 1992,305,250; The Times, 1 May, 1992; The Independent, 27 Apr 1992; Proc.roy.Co.Physns.Edin., v.22,No 4(Oct 1992),v.23,No.2(Apr 1993)]

(Volume IX, page 8)

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