Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir Godfrey Milton-Thompson: Influential naval physician

Before his pioneering work, the peptic ulcer was the great scourge of sailors last century

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The Independent Online

A brilliant physician of impeccable urbanity and charm, Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir Godfrey Milton-Thompson enabled the first effective treatments for a 20th-century scourge of seamen, the peptic ulcer. It was on his initiative that the Royal Navy's medical expertise joined that of civilian physicians schooled in the clinic of the great gastro-enterologist Sir Francis Avery Jones, to develop drugs that could switch off stomach acid in the gut, allowing the painful, and occasionally fatal, condition to heal.

Sailors of the mid-20th century suffered from almost twice the level of peptic ulcer disease as the general population, and in 1975 the then Surgeon-Captain Milton-Thompson took his turn keeping 24-hour watches to monitor the effects of new drugs on volunteer groups of naval paramedics, as they ate, drank, and smoked identical amounts. By the following year cimetidine, a histamine H2 receptor antagonist, which inhibits acid in the gut, was approved for used in the UK, and is marketed as Tagamet. The group also worked with ranitidine, now sold as Zantac, and did further work on absorption in the intestine.

Milton-Thompson's idea emerged when he was broadening his knowledge of his specialty as a research fellow at Avery Jones's hospital, St Mark's, north-west London. There he exchanged ideas with civilian physicians including Sir Christopher Booth, Professor Roy Pounder, and Dr George Misiewicz. His fellow naval researchers included the then Surgeon Commander, now Professor, John Williams and Surgeon Commander Richard Hunt.

"On the basis of these findings, the original dose for cimetidine in the UK was established and therapeutic trials were initiated widely," Sir Godfrey wrote, in an article published in the medical journal Gut in 1989 ("Gastroenterology in the Armed Forces: volume 30). His work won him the Royal Navy's Errol-Eldridge Prize in 1974, and the Gilbert Blane Medal in 1976. Between 1973 and 1981 he and colleagues published many papers on aspects of gut disease in journals including The Lancet and the British Medical Journal.

A man of great presence, Milton-Thompson was able to get things done without appearing to exert any pressure. He used discretion and charm, but strength of purpose lay beneath. From some, these characteristics drew the nickname "Shere Khan," after the tiger in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, and even those who better appreciated his virtues were struck by the way he would narrow his eyes when determined to make a point.

These organisational abilities were indispensable when the Falklands War tested the Navy to the utmost in 1982. Milton-Thompson, as Deputy Medical Director General, had on his shoulders all the administrative weight of making sure land and sea forces had the medical support they needed. He had trained many of the doctors who sailed to with the Task Force, as Professor of Naval Medicine from 1975-80 at Haslar Hospital, Portsmouth, and regretted being told he must stay in London while colleagues he knew were "at the sharp end."

In fact he spent only about three weeks at sea in his 35 years as a Royal Navy officer, a matter of disappointment leavened by the knowledge that his specialist skills were best deployed in hospitals. In retirement he was to look back with good humour by taking the part in an amateur performance of HMS Pinafore of Sir Joseph Porter, who sings "When I was a lad", containing the words: "Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!"

The younger son of the vicar of St Mark's Church, New Ferry, near Birkenhead, Godfrey Milton-Thompson had two 19th-century naval forebears of flag rank and a half-brother, David, who had been a Surgeon-Lieutenant during the Second World War. He excelled at science at Eastbourne College, East Sussex, to which he won a scholarship, and became captain of rugby, with an early influence being the school's chaplain, the former Oxford rugby blue Walter Carey, later Bishop of Bloemfontein in South Africa, who had served on HMS Warspite at Jutland in 1916.

By 1955, when Milton-Thompson joined the Navy initially on a National Service four-year short commission, he had married and qualified as a doctor. He met his wife, Noreen, a secretary, at Cambridge while reading medicine at Queens' College, and they married in 1952 before he went on to complete his clinical training at St Thomas' Hospital in London. His first appointment was as medical assistant in the Malta naval dockyard, and he also served at Chatham dockyard and Plymouth Naval Hospital, where he passed his Consultant board in 1966.

It was his lot on rising to the top of the tree as Surgeon-General at the Ministry of Defence from 1988 until 1990, with responsibility for all three services' medical needs, to have to fight for the survival of the 16 dedicated military hospitals at home and abroad under threat from political cost-cutting decisions. Already closed was Bighi in Malta, where Milton-Thompson had been Senior Specialist in Medicine in the 1960s.

He made a plea for the retention of four dedicated institutions at home – Catterick, Plymouth, Wroughton near Swindon, and Portsmouth – but the policy continued, and Haslar, the last to go, shut in 2007. He wrote in 2006: "Ministers and the Chiefs of Staff were deaf to my arguments and the Treasury was interested only in reducing the defence budget."

In retirement he served as chairman of the Cornwall Community Healthcare Trust from 1991 until its dissolution in 1993, and as Warden of St Katherine's House, Wantage, an Anglican foundation for elderly residents. In that post, with events including the performance of HMS Pinafore, he raised £1.3m to improve the hospital wing.

From 1991 until 1995 he was Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, head of the charitable foundation of the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, which provides ophthalmic services for Palestinians from East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. He was a Knight of St John from 1989 and Member of the Order's Chapter General from 1988.

Godfrey James Milton-Thompson, physician and naval officer: born Birkenhead 25 April 1930; Professor of Naval Medicine 1975-80; Honorary Physician to the Queen 1982-90; Medical Director General (Naval) 1985-90; Surgeon General, Ministry of Defence 1988-90; KBE 1988; married 1952, Noreen Fitzmaurice (three daughters); died Menheniot, Cornwall 23 September 2012.

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