Lord Richardson

Leading figure in post-war British medicine
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The Independent Online

John Richardson was a leading figure in many aspects of British medicine in the post-war years. His achievements included presidency of the General Medical Council (GMC), British Medical Association (BMA) and Royal Society of Medicine (RSM). Yet it was his role as chairman of the Joint Consultants Committee (JCC) from 1967 to 1972 that he regarded with particular, and justifiable, pride.

John Samuel Richardson, physician: born Sheffield 16 June 1910; LVO 1943; first assistant, Medical Professorial Unit, St Thomas' Hospital 1946, physician 1947-75; consulting physician, Metropolitan Police 1957-80; Kt 1960; Bt 1963; consulting physician, London Transport Board 1964-2004; president, International Society of Internal Medicine 1966-70, honorary president 1970; president, Royal Society of Medicine 1969-71; president, British Medical Association 1970-71; president, General Medical Council 1973-80; created 1979 Baron Richardson; married 1933 Sybil Trist (died 1991; two daughters); died Braunton, Devon 15 August 2004.

John Richardson was a leading figure in many aspects of British medicine in the post-war years. His achievements included presidency of the General Medical Council (GMC), British Medical Association (BMA) and Royal Society of Medicine (RSM). Yet it was his role as chairman of the Joint Consultants Committee (JCC) from 1967 to 1972 that he regarded with particular, and justifiable, pride.

He was appointed to the JCC as representative of the Royal College of Physicians, and his talents soon led to his election as its president. This was a period of great importance for the development of the NHS. Richardson represented the JCC on the so-called Cogwheel Working Party, where recommendations were debated vigorously, sometimes with more heat than light. He recognised, ahead of many colleagues, that some rationalisation of medical organisation in NHS hospitals was both needed and inevitable. In large part it was due to his skilful advocacy that changes suggested in the Cogwheel Report ( First Report of the Joint Working Party on the Organisation of Medical Work in Hospitals, 1967) were first accepted, and later seen as overdue reforms.

John Samuel Richardson was born in Sheffield in 1910. His father, a solicitor, was killed in action in 1917. His mother belonged to the noted Roberts steel family. John was educated at Charterhouse, Trinity College, Cambridge, and St Thomas' Hospital Medical School, where he qualified in 1936, winning the Bristowe Medal and Hadden Prize. In the following year, he obtained the MRCP (London), proceeding to FRCP in 1948 and acquiring an MD (Cantab) in 1940.

A promising early career in his teaching hospital was interrupted by Second World War service. As a lieutenant-colonel in the RAMC in North Africa in 1943 he attended King George VI. For this service he was appointed LVO. While attending the King, he met Harold Macmillan, a meeting that had significant consequences for both men.

After the war, he returned to St Thomas' where, in 1947, he was appointed to the staff as consultant physician, a position he also held at the Watford and District Peace Memorial Hospital and Wembley Hospital. Then, in 1948, his career was interrupted again, this time by serious illness in the form of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Within a year he recovered completely and resumed his career in clinical medicine, which ended only with his retirement in 1975. He later became physician to King Edward VII's Hospital for Officers, to the Army and the Metropolitan Police, and to the London Transport Board. From 1970 to 1974 he was editor-in-chief of the British Encyclopaedia of Medical Practice and he edited three other textbooks. His main talent, however, lay elsewhere.

Although Richardson's prowess as a clinician was never in doubt, it soon became obvious that he had unusual ability in administration and in committee work. Common to these gifts and his clinical expertise was an instinctive ability to grasp the fundamental issues in a complex problem. I have already referred to his involvement in the JCC from 1967 to 1972. During this busy period he also became president of the RSM (1969-71), the BMA (1970-71) and the International Society of Medicine (1966-70). In 1972 the Royal College of Nursing made him a Vice-President.

In 1973 began another significant chapter in his professional life: he was appointed president of the GMC. Apart from his executive duties, he enjoyed his frequent meetings with ministers, including the redoubtable Barbara Castle. He introduced a limit to occupancy of this presidency and, in accordance with his own legislation, retired in 1980 when he reached the age of 70.

Despite his heavy administrative load, Richardson's clinical career continued unabated, both at St Thomas' and in his private practice. Among his patients was Harold Macmillan, whom he first met during the war. Macmillan became a good friend and his trust in Richardson was total. His physician accompanied the Prime Minister on many overseas missions.

Given Macmillan's trust, one can only speculate what might have happened if Richardson had been in London when the Prime Minister became ill in October 1963. In the absence of his trusted physician, Macmillan bowed to the advice of others and resigned on medical grounds. Returning post-haste to London, Richardson disagreed with the need for retirement but the die was cast. Macmillan later admitted that he had been frightened into believing he had cancer. Had Richardson not been away on holiday at that time, British politics might have taken a different turn.

Honours were heaped upon Richardson. He was made honorary fellow of seven other medical colleges. Honorary degrees varying from DSc to LLD were conferred by five universities. He was Master of the Apothecaries, 1971-72, and Governor of St Thomas' Hospital, 1953-59. In 1974 he was made a Bencher of Gray's Inn. Knighted in 1960, he became a baronet in 1963 and a life peer in 1971. In 1979, he was made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

By nature, Richardson was rather reserved. This, coupled with his deliberate and precise speech, could give the impression of pomposity. He was aware of this and disarmingly confessed to unsuccessful efforts at changing this image. Outstanding in his attributes was integrity, which was widely recognised and respected in the various theatres of his life in medicine. Here lay one reason for his success as an administrator and committee chairman. He was an extremely kind man, but this facet of his character was expressed unobtrusively. Many had cause to be grateful to him, sometimes without knowing it, such was his distaste for publicity in these circumstances.

"JSR", as he was known in St Thomas', was highly committed to the welfare of his juniors. His advice was sound and honest. This aspect of the man was apparent at a dinner given in his honour by his past house- physicians at the time of his retirement from St Thomas'. The turn-out was remarkable, many having travelled far to attend. His speech on this occasion revealed detailed knowledge of many present. Later he movingly told me of the huge pleasure given him by the gift presented to him that evening. Throughout his multi-faceted career, JSR's heart was never far from St Thomas'. It is fitting that his memorial service will be held in the chapel of the hospital.

In 1933 John Richardson married the artist Sybil Trist. They remained most happily married until her death in 1991. He is survived by their two daughters, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Norman Jones