Dr Tom Kirk

First World War medical officer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tom Kirk was the last surviving medical officer of the First World War.

Thomas Hobson Kirk, medical practitioner: born Seaton Carew, Co Durham 13 January 1899; married 1925 Peggy Daniels (died 1974; one son, one daughter); died Woolsington, Tyne and Wear 9 November 2004.

Tom Kirk was the last surviving medical officer of the First World War.

His qualifications for such a position at the war's start, however, were minimal. He had done only one year at medical school and had passed his 2nd MB, but had done no clinical work. Before joining up, he was sent to the casualty department of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle for six weeks to learn how to dress wounds. He was then posted to Haslar Naval Hospital in Gosport.

He worked on the wards, learned a little of naval practice and was reproved for an incorrect shirt and jacket because he had used his local tailor instead of Gieves. He spent his last evening in Gosport passionately kissing a young nurse in the local sand-hills, probably thinking that this would be his last chance, as the next day he would report as a Surgeon-Probationer to HMS Lydiard, which had seen action at the Battle of Heligoland, Dogger Bank and Jutland.

Tom Kirk was born in 1899 near the ironworks at Seaton Carew in County Durham, where his father managed the coke ovens. One of three children, he had vivid recall of his father, who drank tea from a moustache cup and would measure him against the door-jamb of the ironworks to see his progress and allow him to ride on the footplate of the engine which pushed a wagon up the slagheap before tipping molten iron down the hillside. A kindly man, he gave his son on his first birthday a model steam engine. On each birthday he or one of his brothers would add to the train set and play on their knees with young Tom, breathing in the smell of methylated spirit oil and steam.

When he was only eight, his father died. A family friend who had started a school offered him a place, and he was to spend four happy years there. One of the outings from there was to Blackpool Airport, where he saw an air display which included Louis Blériot arriving in his biplane having just flown across the Channel. In 1912 Tom Kirk was awarded a scholarship to Giggleswick School in north Yorkshire and as a reward his uncle sent him tickets to see Lancashire play, and beat, the Australians at Old Trafford.

At the outbreak of war, Tom was playing for the school cricket team and was a member of their OTC, in which he was a sergeant. In December 1914, he was offered a place at Newcastle Medical School. He left Giggleswick with the words of his physics master ringing in his ears: "You'll be a rotten doctor, but you'll get away with it somehow."

His train stopped at Stockton on Tees, where his grandfather rather dramatically put a shell fragment into his hand, shouting: "The Germans are in Hartlepool!" That day German battle cruisers had fired 1,500 shells on the town, killing 112 people. Tom Kirk's war had become a reality. After two terms at medical school, he had won prizes for anatomy and, to the chagrin of his former master, physics. On his 18th birthday in 1917, he passed his medical and submitted his name as a Surgeon-Probationer.

On board HMS Lydiard he was astonished to find he was the only medical officer and that he had medical responsibility for five other destroyers. The main task for his ship was escort duty across the Channel, which included accompanying the first American troops from Southampton to Le Havre. On one occasion the crew went ashore to play football against a French side, but they never found the ground.

After further trips in Norwegian water, Kirk was released to continue his medical studies. He reported to his medical officer on the depot ship and handed over his meagre stock of first-aid equipment and his drug cabinet, from which he had dealt out pills, knowing little of their properties.

On leaving medical school, Kirk went into general practice, dealing with the terrifying outbreak of flu that beset Britain in 1918. He spent 40 happy years in Barton in Lincolnshire and on the outbreak of the Second World War took command of the local Home Guard. While in practice, and then in retirement in Stocksfield, Northumberland, he wrote three novels, Back to the Wall (1967), The River Gang (1968), and The Ardrey Ambush (1969), all published by Faber & Faber.

This gentle and much-respected man continued to serve the community and to deliver meals on wheels, to many younger than himself, until he was 93.

Max Arthur