Dr Bent Juel-Jensen

Oxford physician and bibliophile


Bent Einer Juel-Jensen, physician and book collector: born Odense, Denmark 11 November 1922; Medical Officer to the Medical School, Oxford University 1960-77, Clinical Lecturer on Communicable Diseases 1972-90, University Medical Officer 1976-90; consultant, United Oxford Hospitals 1966-90; Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford 1973-90 (Emeritus); married 1949 Mary Maples (one daughter, one adopted son); died Oxford 20 December 2006.

Medicine and bibliophily frequently go together, but never more so than in Bent Juel-Jensen, most anglophile of Danes, who came to live in Oxford, where he was the pioneer of student health in Oxford University and far beyond, and where too he was an outstanding benefactor of the Bodleian Library. He was as determined as generous: determined to get things done or to buy a book, he gave his friendship freely but not uncritically; if he thought you had done something wrong, he told you so, and then forgave you.

He came to Oxford in 1949, already with a medical degree from Copenhagen and after two years' service in the Danish navy, to read physiology as an undergraduate at New College. He joined the Clinical School at the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1951, becoming houseman and then registrar there after he graduated BM in 1953. He joined the university medical department in 1956 when Sir George Pickering became Regius Professor and began to bring together the independent medical departments in a single clinical school. Pickering and he became fast friends, and with him Juel-Jensen undertook his first research into hypertension and vascular disease.

In 1957 he joined a general practice that included care of undergraduates in eight colleges, and in 1959 he conducted a study on the incidence of illness among them. This had hitherto been only a matter of remote interest to the university, but, on becoming medical officer at the Radcliffe the next year, Juel-Jensen extended the scope of this post to include responsibility for student health generally. A Rockefeller travelling fellowship at Harvard in 1962-63 enabled him to study provisions for it in the United States, and on return he made significant changes in undergraduate health care, as well as starting research into the epidemiology and treatment of virus infections.

Juel-Jensen was appointed consultant in communicable diseases to the United Oxford Hospitals in 1966 and university clinical lecturer on them in 1972, the year that he was awarded his DM for his thesis on the same subject. He was appointed consultant in charge of the regional infectious diseases unit at the Slade Hospital, later at the Churchill Hospital, in 1976. That year, the university created for him the new post of University Medical Officer, with his own department, responsible for health and safety in all the science departments. He became President of the British Student Health Association, and a world authority on the subject.

Catholic though they were, Juel-Jensen's interests went far beyond the medical profession. True, he took a special interest in safeguarding those who went on the Oxford University Exploration Society's expeditions, but he also fought for the non-medical needs of medical students. It was his determination and fund-raising that brought about the conversion of a building on the old Radcliffe site to provide social amenities for them. He called it William Osler House after the great physician and book collector, a hero to him, as to his other hero, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, surgeon and book collector. Bibliophily, the oldest and closest of extra-curricular interests, was already deep-seated.

Bent Juel-Jensen was born in 1922 in the parish of St Knud in the ancient centre of Odense, in a house already filled with books by his schoolmaster father, on 11 November, the feast of St Martin of Tours, the patron saint of sufferers from infectious diseases. He was educated at the Railway Street and Mulernes Schools, and then at the Cathedral School, before going to Copenhagen University. The urge to collect was inbred: besides books, bought with pocket money at the age of seven or eight, he sought butterflies, birds, coins, stamps, islands, plants, prints and drawings, all passions that fluctuated but never left him.

Ensconced at Regensen, the students' residence, Juel-Jensen soon found his feet, both among his fellow students and in the Resistance (with sabotage and helping Allied airmen escape), but also among the bookshops in the quartier latin round the university. Old Scandinavian books were still cheap, as were older books in other languages, including English. In 1941 he found a battered book bound in old sheep lettered "Old Poetry"; this proved to be the second edition of Michael Drayton's The Battle of Agincourt. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the literature and books of Elizabethan England, which spread to embrace the whole country and all periods.

As a schoolboy he had written to the headmasters of Eton and Harrow, asking for a correspondent of his own age. Mark Maples at Harrow responded, but the friendship thus begun was cut short; Maples joined the Fleet Air Arm and was killed in a training accident. Letters to his mother, transmitted through the Red Cross, brought Juel-Jensen a photograph that he kept on his desk in Regensen. As soon as possible after the Second World War, he was invited to come to England and meet Mark's mother and his twin sister Mary. Acquaintance flowered, and it was not just further education that brought Juel-Jensen to England again in 1949. He came to marry Mary.

Oxford became his home. He began to frequent the Bodleian Library, then and later a second home; he also founded the University Society of Bibliophiles for like-minded undergraduates. His own collection grew from Drayton and Sidney to include their contemporaries Spenser, Wither, William Drummond of Hawthornden, the second folio of Shakespeare, books that had belonged to the untimely dead Prince Henry, a link to Denmark through his mother. His early Danish books were outstanding, extending to Iceland, Greenland and the missionary press at the Danish colony at Tranquebar in India. Later enthusiasms included Chatterton, who dreamed of an earlier age, "Gothick" novels, Shelley, Keats, and Keats's friend John Hamilton Reynolds, on whom Juel-Jensen wrote an article in 1966 in The Book Collector, where he later described his collection.

His third love was Ethiopia, where he went for the first time in 1973 with the botanist Oleg Polunin. He fell in love with the country and its people, and returned next year as medical officer to an Exploration Society archaeological expedition to the rock-hewn churches of Tigray. He met the governor of the province, Ras Mangashia, and was with him when Haile Selassie was overthrown. At great risk himself, Ras Mangashia made sure the Oxford expedition was safe, but Juel-Jensen, already a devoted friend, went with him to the Sudan, and later adopted his son Seyoum. Then and in succeeding years he travelled far and wide succouring the refugees, even recalling sabotage techniques learned in the war against the hateful Mengistu regime.

Books were included in his Ethiopian rescue endeavours. Never one to do things by halves, he learned the Amharic language and to read the ancient Ge'ez script in which scripture and liturgy were written. He bought his first manuscripts in 1973, and by 1990 he had acquired over 40, some dating back to the 15th century. Books filled his charming old house in Headington, many remaining when, in old age and increasing infirmity, he had to move into sheltered housing. His last books were bought not long before Christmas.

For almost 50 years Juel-Jensen was on the Council of the Friends of the Bodleian Library, and in 1987 he began a series of benefactions to it with the gift of his now matchless Drayton collection, and over the years he added much more, from block-printed books brought back from Bhutan to the works of his friend Bruce Chatwin.

There is a marble slab within the library recording the names of its greatest benefactors, beginning with the 15th-century "Humfredus Dux Gloucestriae". Among them now stands "Benedictus Juel-Jensen": never forgetful of his native land, he became a still greater friend of his adopted country.

Nicolas Barker

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