Lives of the fellows

John Alexander (Sir) Charles

b.26 July 1893 d.6 April 1971
Kt(1950) KCB(1955) MB BS Durh(1916) DPH Cantab(1925) MRCP(1927) MD Durh(1930) FRCP(1935) Hon Dr of Hygiene Durh(1951)

John Charles was born at Medomsley, Co. Durham. He was the son of John Charles MD (Glasgow), JP, who practised for many years in Stanley, Co. Durham. His mother was Margaret Dewer, daugher of Eng.-Cdr. Alexander Dewar RN, who died in 1912 at Aberdeen.

Charles was educated at St. Bees School and the Royal Grammar School at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, followed by the University of Durham College of Medicine, where he qualified in 1916. After three house appointments at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, he served as a captain in the RAMC (Special Reserve) in France, Belgium and Italy from 1917; and from 1919 to 1924 with the Army of Occupation in Germany. In 1925, after taking a DPH at Cambridge, he became assistant tuberculosis officer and resident physician at the City Infectious Diseases Hospital at Newcastle; then assistant county medical officer of health for Wiltshire; returning to Newcastle in 1928, where he became medical officer of health in 1932.

He transferred from local to central public health in 1944, when he was appointed as second deputy to the Chief Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, Sir Wilson Jameson; the other deputy being Sir Weldon Dalrymple-Champneys. A colleague in the Ministry of Health wrote in an obituary notice (Lancet 17.iv. 1971) that Wilson Jameson "brought Charles to London early in the negotiations for a National Health Servcice, partly to relieve him of some routine work, but chiefly to deal with some of the more Machiavellian characters involved, with whom the extrovert Jameson feared he would fail. This Charles did with outstanding skill and he was the natural successor when Jameson retired in 1950." Also his unusual success in Newcastle in achieving collaboration between the health department, hospitals and general practitioners had singled him out as a possible collaborator in constructing a national health service.

In 1950 he became the first chief medical officer to the Home Office, in addition to his other two appointments.

His ten years’ service as CMO were years of consolidation of the National Health Service and of reconstruction after the war. Clinical medicine was becoming a much greater concern of the Ministry of Health than before the NHS Act and problems such as the relation of cigarette smoking to lung cancer were beginning to emerge. A controversy in which Charles suffered a defeat, which left a serious scar, was the international effort to control heroin by abolishing its use in medicine. Naturally he supported the World Health Organization’s efforts to this end, but he failed to achieve agreement in this country.

When he retired in 1960 he could look back on ten years of sound, solid achievement which, if not spectacular, was exactly what was needed at that time.

But retirement by no means saw the end of his public activities which henceforth were largely in the international field. He had travelled to all the Scandinavian countries and to the USA while he was Deputy CMO, and he was President of the Executive Board of the WHO in 1957-58 and of its Twelfth Assembly at Geneva in 1959. (There are gramophone records deposited in the College Library of his speeches on both these occasions, which have been used for instructional purposes for the WHO Secretariat). In 1960, he was Chairman of an expert committee on public health administration and in 1963, Chairman of the health committee of the UN Conference on the Application of Science and Technology to the Developing Countries. In 1962 he received the Léon Bernard Prize of WHO for his contributions to social medicine, and in 1970 he was selected as the second Parisot Lecturer to the World Health Assembly.

Quite soon after his retirement, he became a senior adviser in the secretariat of WHO, serving in that capacity almost until his death in 1971. There his chief work was in the preparation of the second and third Reports on the World Health Situation - an invaluable and lasting memorial to him, though anonymous - but his vast knowledge of international health, his willingness to lend a hand with any problem and his quiet modesty made his contribution to WHO indispensable, as was shown by the constant renewal of his temporary appointment.

Charles’s chief written works, apart from his annual report as MOH of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and as Chief Medical Officer to the Ministry of Health [‘On the State of Public Health’, 1950-59], were the numerous and important lectures he was invited to deliver, including the Bradshaw Lecture and the Harveian Oration at the College. He liked writing and took great trouble over it. (It is said that, when President of Durham University Union he once wrote every article in one issue of the Union’s magazine himself!) Whether it was meticulously careful minutes or erudite articles on medical history the produce was stylish, exact and polished.

Charles was a Councillor of the College in 1944-47 and 1954-56, and an Examiner in Public Health for the College and for a number of universities.

Charles - known to his friends either as John or Alec - was a short, dark, clean-shaven, rather thick-set man, with a modest, diffident manner, in total contrast to his predecessor at the Ministry, Wilson Jameson, who was a large, hearty extrovert. He spoke softly and sometimes gave the impression of timidity or a wish to evade the issue, but this was chiefly due to his self-effacing modesty. He had a retentive and formidable memory; his knowledge of public health was immense, and his advice was always informed and sound, if on the cautious side - so necessary in a Civil Service adviser. He got on well with administrative (non-medical) civil servants and with his own staff. He also understood and liked foreigners - one of his closest office friends at Geneva was an Egyptian. His industry, devotion to duty, knowledge and scholarship were obvious, but it required intimacy and an unofficial relationship to bring out other facets in Charles’s nature - his kindliness, hospitality, wit and warm heart.

His main interests outside his work were music of all kinds, reading thrillers and dining out with friends - and he always turned first to the sporting pages of a newspaper.

He married in 1947, Madeleine Frances, daughter of the late Sir William Hume, CMG, MD, FRCP, Professor Emeritus of Medicine in the University of Durham (Sir William Hume is believed to have been the first Censor of the College to come from the provinces), by whom he had a son and daughter.

NM Goodman

[Brit.med.J., 1971, 2, 173; Lancet, 1971, 1, 812; Times, 8 April, 21 April, 1971]

(Volume VI, page 98)

<< Back to List