Lives of the fellows

Henry St Clair (Sir) Colson

b.29 July 1887 d.27 February 1968
KCB(1947) CBE(1942) KStJ(1946) MB BS Lond(1912) DPH(1928) FRCP(1947)

Henry Colson was born in Southampton, the son of Peter James Colson, a professional musician, and Hortense Yon. He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Southampton, and the Westminster Hospital, where he graduated MB, BS in 1912. After brief residential appointments at Croydon General Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital, Islington, he joined the Royal Navy as Acting Surgeon, and from 1913 to 1916 he served in HMS Suffolk in North America and the West Indies. His remaining war service was with the Royal Marines at Plymouth, and it was from there that he took part as medical officer to the 4th RM Battalion in the famous raid on Zeebrugge Mole in 1918.

After the war he decided to specialize in bacteriology and public health. In June 1921 he was appointed to the Royal Naval Hospital, Bermuda, as specialist in Bacteriology for a period of three years, during which time he was promoted to Surgeon Commander. After service in South Africa he joined the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham, in 1927, and served 2½ years there, specializing in bacteriology and pathology. In 1928 he took the DPH.

His appointments from 1930 to 1932 included nine months in the Revenge and Resolution as Senior Medical Officer of the 1st Battle Squadron, and in August 1932 he became Naval Health Officer of the Portsmouth Command.

On 31 December 1934 he was promoted to Surgeon Captain, and in May of the next year he joined HMS St Angelo to undertake the corresponding post in the Mediterranean Station for three years. He served again as Naval Health Officer in the Portsmouth Command from 1939 until he was transferred to the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital, Sherboume, in 1941. In 1942 he was appointed CBE, and in September of that year was promoted to Surgeon Rear-Admiral to take charge of the large Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital at Barrow Gurney, near Bristol.

In January 1946, Henry Colson succeeded Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir Sheldon Dudley as Medical Director-General of the Navy. In the same year he became an honorary physician to King George VI, was appointed CB, and became a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. In 1947 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and was appointed KCB. He was placed on the retired list on 1 January 1949 after a distinguished career of over 36 years.

Colson was 25 years of age when he joined the Navy. This was rather older than was then customary. In his own year and the two preceding the quality of the intake had been good. An unusually high proportion of these officers reached senior rank, and with the rather rigid promotion structure of the Navy it must have seemed unlikely that he would progress far without meeting one of the age barriers to further promotion. But "there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune". For Colson this tide was undoubtedly high water at Zeebrugge Mole on 23 April 1918 when the Royal Marines went into the assault. His conduct in this desperate action was marked by high and sustained courage. His service record speaks of long hours of work in darkness, under fire, and surrounded by choking fumes. As an alternative to a decoration he was offered, and accepted, special promotion to Staff Surgeon (later known as Surgeon Lieutenant Commander) antedated to 23 April 1916. This took him at one bound from the most junior to the most senior position in a batch of exceptionally able officers and set his feet firmly on the path to the summit of his branch of the Navy.

His appointment as Medical Director General came at a time when the Navy was facing problems of demobilization and at the same time was trying to define its future role in the age of nuclear strategy. The approach to these problems called for administrative skill, foresight, and industry. Colson possessed these qualities in high degree and acquired a wide reputation as an administrator. He saw clearly the need to maintain and expand the links with the world of science which had been forged during the war, and he collaborated fruitfully with Sir Edward Mellanby FRS in the working of the Royal Naval Personnel Research Committee of the Medical Research Council. This Committee came to be perhaps the most important organization for the application of the biological sciences to the life and work of the Navy.

Personally, Colson was gentle and retiring in his manner but with a quiet persuasiveness and determination which rarely failed to get him his way.

In 1921 he married Miss Vera Bergh, the daughter of a South African civil servant. They had one son.

JM Holford

[Brit.med.J., 1968, 1, 711; Lancet, 1, 648; Times, 28 Feb 1968]

(Volume VI, page 110)

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