Dr A.G. Davies: Doctor, lawyer, coroner and inventor

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The Independent Online

A.G. Davies was one of that dwindling group whose life and career spanned the two world wars. A true polymath, he was doctor, army officer, lawyer, coroner, psychiatrist and inventor but, no dilettante, he practised each one to a high level of expertise and discipline. For the whole of his life, well into old age, he relished the challenge of living in an age of rapidly changing technology and he worked hard to keep abreast of it.

Born in 1917 to Louis and Elizabeth Horwitz, Russian Jewish immigrants who fled from the pogroms in the 19th century and who, having first arrived in Wales, took a Welsh surname, Arthur Gordon Davies was the only boy of four children. He grew up in London and very early on exhibited the energy and ambition often shown by the first generation of a minority immigrant group. He matriculated at 15, with a distinction in chemistry and a clear desire to become a chemist. But his mother wanted her son to be a doctor and he obliged by qualifying in medicine at Westminster Hospital in 1943, serving as house doctor in hospitals all over England until in January 1944 he joined the army as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

He served in France, Belgium and Holland and then returned to England where he met and married a nurse, Joan Thompson. In 1948, after he was demobbed, he set up as a general practitioner in Acton where he could have settled into a quiet life of service to the community. However, his observation of the psychosomatic nature of human behaviour led him to want to widen his medical skills and he spent three years training in psychological medicine.

In this restless mind, his new knowledge started him thinking on a new tack – about the role that the understanding of human behaviour could and should have in court proceedings. There was nothing for it but to train as a barrister, and he was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1955.

Now qualified as both a doctor and a lawyer, his mind turned to the coroner service. In those days, to become a coroner meant serving an underpaid apprenticeship as a coroner's assistant and waiting until you could step into someone's shoes following retirement or death. Gordon Davies stuck out the wait and served as a coroner for over 28 years, retiring as Coroner of South London and therefore also as Coroner to the Royal Household in 1987. It says something for the longevity of the royal family themselves that in his 23 years as Coroner to the Royal Household the main business Davies transacted in that capacity was to preside over the inquests on royal servants.

A coroner's court is often an arena where the end game with all its sadness and drama is displayed. Davies, with his sharp appreciation of human behaviour and his analytical mind was able to chart a course through the minefield of emotions before him with calm and sympathetic understanding and insight. For a year I became his deputy (resigning after I found having to view the corpses in the morgue too much). I cannot forget his advice to me about how to decide how an old lady found gassed in the kitchen came to die. "If the budgie has been taken out into another room, it's suicide."

There was still another vacuum in Davies's life to be filled – his inventiveness. He never played about with electronics and chemistry but pursued a serious interest in them and eventually invented a novel method of measuring the colour balance of negatives to produce perfect prints. He set up a company with friends to manufacture and market a range of colour analysers and densitometers and badge testers used in the nuclear industry all over the world and refused to cash in his interest in the business until all his loyal workers had reached retirement age.

Here was a man who took his destiny in his own hands, playing many instruments with skill and thought, and never whingeing. And throughout his full life he still found time to love and support his family.

Rex Cowan

Arthur Gordon Davies, barrister, coroner and inventor: born London 6 November 1917; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1955; Coroner to the Royal Household 1959-83; Coroner, Inner South London 1959-87; managing director, Medical and Electrical Instrumentation Co 1965-90; married 1945 Joan Thompson (died 2003; two daughters); died London 19 January 2008.