Lives of the fellows

Hugh Anthony Clegg

b.19 June 1900 d.6 July 1983
CBE(1966) BA Cantab(1922) MB BChir(1928) MRCP(1929) FRCP(1944) Hon MD Dubl(1952) Hon D Litt Belf(1962)

Hugh Clegg’s qualities came from both parents. His intellect came from his father, a prep school headmaster in East Anglia whose tutoring in the classics enabled Hugh to win scholarships to Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as giving him a lifelong interest in Latin and Greek and English style. His energy, ability, and eagerness to do everything himself probably came from his mother. All these attributes combined to make him a formidable editor, an innovator as well as an upholder of standards, even if he was not always easy to live, or work, with.

Having got a first class in the Natural Sciences tripos, Clegg went to Bart’s, where he qualified in 1928. After house jobs there and the Brompton Hospital he became resident medical registrar to Charing Cross Hospital. Passing the MRCP in 1929 he was tipped for a post on the staff, but times were hard, he wanted to get married, and he had no private means. Whether Clegg had the sympathy or the suavity to make a hospital consultant in private practice will never be known, but his defection from clinical work was journalism’s gain.

Throughout most of Clegg’s days as a junior on the staff of the BMJ Gerald Horner, the chief editor, was a sick man. Much of the quality and independence that Horner’s predecessor, the great Sir Dawson Williams, had won for the BMJ was lost in the 1930s and the journal showed it, degenerating virtually into a parish magazine which, as legend put it, occupied less space in the wastepaper basket if it was left in its wrapper. Clegg bided his time and learnt his craft; besides an energetic routine subeditorial role, he wrote and edited some pamphlets and books and played an increasing part in the gentler medical politics of those days.

Travelling as often as he could, he formed friendships with people such as the journalist Frederick Voigt, the typographer Stanley Morrison, and the statistician (Sir) Austin Bradford Hill. By the time the second world war broke out he was virtually at the helm (although he was not appointed editor until 1947). He ran the journal with only one or two other helpers, coped with wartime Home Front duties such as firewatching, and found the time to launch what became the medical department of the British Council, as well as a regular bulletin of abstracts of medical articles, and to take an increasing part in the debates on the Beveridge and other reports.

Once appointed editor, Clegg’s energies were used to the full. With Stanley Morrison’s help, the BMJ was redesigned. Prodded by Bradford Hill, Clegg tightened up the refereeing of the original articles, particularly the statistical aspects. The immediate postwar years were those of the great large-scale clinical trials (on antibiotics, for example) and epidemiological studies (such as on smoking and lung cancer), which the journal published week after week, together with explanatory anonymous leading articles written by authorities as well as equally knowledgeable juniors who were nurtured for the future.

A whole bevy of new specialist journals was launched, making the BMA at one time the largest medical publishing house in the country. Clegg also found the time to sponsor the first two world conferences on medical education (as well as to edit the proceedings), to become involved in the affairs of the World Medical Association, and to start a concern with medical ethics that was eventually to lead to the Declaration of Helsinki on human experimentation.

Such omelettes cannot be made without breaking many eggs, and Clegg was hardly a finicky cook. His staff tended to pass through sine waves of personal relationships: successively extreme approval, disapproval and withdrawal of work, and renewal of esteem. Whole issues of the BMJ already ready for Tuesday press might be torn apart and reassembled on a Monday afternoon (but the printers loved the hassle). Articles that a subordinate had already accepted might be rejected (usually with good reason) and the junior left to explain matters. Editorials might be rewritten at the printers on press day itself, particularly at the time of the debates on the NHS Bill, when his thoughtful and well-argued leading articles often helped to create BMA policy. On the other hand, Clegg was often generous to his juniors, encouraging them to write or to develop special interests and defending them if they over-reached themselves.

Clegg’s intellect and debating skills, let alone the help of friends in high, and modest, places, were never more needed than in what became known as the ‘Gold-headed Cane’ affair. His editorial of that name, published in 1956, questioned whether the then president of the Royal College of Physicians should not stand down for a younger man. Sir Russell Brain, as he then was, had, however, been appointed to lead an important delegation to the Government in which the BMA was prominently represented. Resenting his authority and standing, Clegg’s enemies at the Association seized their chance and claimed that his editorial had violated BMA policy. At a meeting of the Council he was censured and ordered to show all future medicopolitical editorials to the chief officers for approval. Clegg refused this stipulation (as did his colleagues on the BMJ) and was looking for a suitable post in general practice when the Annual Representative Meeting of the BMA vindicated his attitude, when it overthrew a motion: ‘That this Representative Body instructs the Council to take steps to ensure that leading articles in the British Medical Journal reflect the policy of the Association’.

This affair was more than a domestic storm: Clegg’s victory established that to obtain a journal of international standing its owners (even if a trade union) must allow its editor complete freedom, reserving the right to dismiss him if he grossly abused it. Widely publicized, the repercussions of this debate were felt in many quarters inside and outside medicine, and they helped other organizations and their editors to clarify their roles. Certainly the BMA learnt a lesson and left the BMJ alone to run its own affairs. Never one to shirk the truth, Clegg hammered this principle home time after time, even in his farewell speech to an audience which included many of his erstwhile opponents, who had acknowleged his genius with the award of the BMA gold medal. Though some questioned the propriety of raking over old history on such occasions, his successors have had reason to be grateful for his candour.

Short and stocky, Clegg had an almost military bearing and a rasping voice; he was interested in food and wine, travel, books and conversation, but little else and as a result became bored throughout his 18 years of retirement. Missing the ‘platform’ he had had while editor, he tended to brood on two occurrences: his honour of a CBE compared with the knighthood conferred on his counterpart at the Lancet — a relative neglect he shared with another great, and difficult, man, Leslie Witts - and the fact that he had missed call up in the first world war by only a month.

Almost everybody respected him and many adored him; his foibles, strengths, and weaknesses were well summed up by a former junior colleague John Rowan Wilson, who drew on him (along with several others of the BMJ staff) for Suvarov, the director of a Siberian research centre, in his novel The Side of the Angels. Certainly without Hugh Clegg postwar British medicine in general and the BMJ in particular would have taken different courses.

In 1932 Clegg married Baroness Kira Engelhardt of Smolensk, Russia, who survived him with a son, and a daughter who specialized as a psychiatrist.

SP Lock

[Times, 7 July 1983, Lancet, 1983, 2, 175;, 1983, 287, 166, 220]

(Volume VII, page 103)

<< Back to List