Lives of the fellows

Handley Montague Townsend Coles

b.4 June 1917 d.6 December 1985
MRCS LRCP( 1944) MB BS Lond(1945) DCH(1949) MD(1951) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1966)

Handley Montague Townsend Coles was a scion of the Coles family who came from Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire. He was born at Loughton in Essex and was the fifth son of William Francis Coles who, at an early age, had been obliged to work in the mines to support his widowed mother and sisters. In later life, Francis Coles became an evangelistic Plymouth Brother and lay preacher. Handley’s mother, Rosalind Ethel Daisy Townsend, to whom he was very devoted, was the headmistress of a small preparatory school. Handley was named partly after his maternal grandfather and partly after a missionary whom the family admired. Early family life was governed by strict religious principles.

When Handley was twelve years old, his mother died, the school was closed and he was sent for further education to Wallingbrook School in Devon. On leaving school, he took a job with a shipping company in the City and remained there for two or three years until he was given the opportunity to study medicine. He had not found office work very congenial but after starting his medical studies at King’s College, London, he made some good friends and life began to broaden.

When the 1939-45 war started the College was evacuated to Glasgow and Birmingham, where the preclinical courses were held, but most of the clinical teaching took place in the King’s College Hospital sector at Horton and Leatherhead. It was at Leatherhead that Handley met Patricia Falle, his future wife and the younger daughter of Frances Huxley who was one of the early women consultants in London and a founder fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Handley qualified in 1944 and after one house appointment and having gained his degree, he joined the Navy as a surgeon lieutenant RNVR. He served in destroyers in the North Atlantic, was transferred to the Naval base at Trincomalee in Ceylon and, after the end of hostilities, to Singapore.

After release from National Service, and marriage early in 1947, his career in paediatrics started at Southend General Hospital as house physician to Richard Dobbs whom he greatly admired. Two years were spent in general medicine before returning to paediatrics as an intern at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Hackney. His work and easy rapport with children impressed everyone there. Barnett Levin, the eminent biochemist, remarked that he knew Handley Coles would go far and described him as having ‘the manner and manners of a Spanish Count’. Ian McAllister Anderson (q.v.) was also on the staff there and supported Handley in becoming paediatric registrar at Westminster and Westminster Childrens’ Hospitals. Subsequently he was appointed senior registrar to Sir Charles Harris [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.224] who allowed him a great deal of responsibility. The paediatric cardiac unit was being developed at Westminster Hospital and Handley trained and became proficient in the then new technique of cardiac catheterization, becoming a mainstay of the department in this respect. There was warm friendship and camaraderie between the registrars at that time and Handley, Kenneth Hugh-Jones and Seymour Mason, always looked back on those years with affection.

He was appointed to the staff of Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children, Carshalton, in 1957. This had been the largest childrens’ hospital in England, founded by the London County Council for the treatment of rheumatic fever and rheumatic cardiac disease. By the time he joined the staff, this was less of a problem and the hospital service was contracting. He saw through the difficult amalgamation of Queen Mary’s with the Fountain Hospital and welcomed his new colleagues with his accustomed friendliness.

A year later he was appointed to the consultant staff at Westminster Childrens’ Hospital, with sessions on the paediatric cardiology unit at Westminster Hospital. These were great days for both places; George McNab was undertaking pioneer work on hydrocephalus with the Spitz-Holter valve, and Cyril Scurr and Charles Drew, the cardiac surgeon, had developed the technique of profound hypothermia for intracardiac surgery in congenital heart disease. The role of the paediatric team was to investigate, discuss and propose treatment. The meetings did not always run smoothly but they were helped by Handley’s tact. To his colleagues, he seemed satisfied with things at the time though there were moments when he expressed anxiety about his position as a mere investigator, finding the role rather irksome. At this time, he wrote papers on selective angiocardiography of the infant heart, and a well remembered classic on endocardial cushion defects with Ian Anderson in 1961 [Brit.med,J., 11 March 1961,pp.696-705].

His principal interest remained general clinical paediatrics and he took the main burden of acute cases at the Childrens’ Hospital, inspiring confidence in nursing staff, juniors, parents and children, by his kindly management and concern for their welfare. He was a most popular undergraduate teacher: his unorthodox approach and sense of fun made his rounds an entertainment. He thought it important to teach broad clinical principles and to stimulate students with varying subjects rather than try to instil the minutiae of academic paediatrics, which they could read for themselves. He served on the council of the section of paediatrics at the Royal Society of Medicine from 1970-78, and as its secretary in 1974 and 1975.

During the sixties and seventies he suffered two quite severe illnesses which he bore with characteristic stoicism but he was well enough to start the new department of paediatrics at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, in 1973, managing it and the neonatal service for five years as the sole consultant. In 1976 he largely wrote and edited an admirably lucid text book of paediatrics for students, Paediatrics, Tunbridge Wells, Pitman, 1976, and just before retiring received the high honour from the undergraduates of being elected chairman of the annual Shrove Tuesday dinner at Westminster Hospital Medical School.

He had an excellent relationship with all who worked with him and took a great interest in helping his juniors who benefited from his guidance and encouragement in their careers. Ward rounds at the Childrens’ Hospital were often followed by drinks at the local hostelry. One remembers one such session after a clinical meeting with visiting consultants when an impecunious junior, waiting apprehensively for his turn to pay the next round, found a five-pound note quietly pressed into his hand by Handley.

Despite his heavy clinical commitments he made time for his family of two sons and two daughters, and his favourite relaxation of salmon fishing for which he would escape to Wales and, once a year, to the Spey, some times with his sons. He and Patricia travelled often in France and, in 1978, bought a ruined farmhouse there which gave Handley an opportunity to use his talents in designing and making the architectural drawings for its restoration. He had wide, cultured interests, and his wit, humorous view of life and disarming modesty made him a memorable companion.

In 1977 he had to undergo cardiac surgery and although he returned to work he felt, after two years, that he should retire from his Health Service commitments. After an enjoyable spell in Saudi Arabia, he retired finally in 1982. Sadly, his few years of retirement were clouded by the untimely death of his younger son following an accident in Italy, and by increasing ill health which was born with characteristic fortitude.

L Sinclair

[Brit.med.J., 1986, 292, 565]

(Volume VIII, page 100)

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