OBITUARY : Professor Sir David Smithers

David Smithers was a Kentish man of many parts: author, scientist, rose grower, and one of the foremost cancer physicians for 30 years after the Second World War.

Smithers trained initially in radiology and became a pioneer of the new speciality of radiotherapy. He was appointed to the London University Chair of Radiotherapy at the Institute of Cancer Research in 1943, and in the same year became Director of the Radiotherapy Department at the Royal Marsden Hospital. He soon realised the potential medical uses of the new developments in physics, especially the production of artificial radioactive isotopes and high-energy X-ray beams.

With the medical physicist Val Mayneord he conceived the idea of a new centre for the application of nuclear physics to medicine. Frustrated by the inadequacy of the Royal Marsden site in Chelsea for his purposes, and the failure to purchase an adjacent site, David Smithers and his colleagues were instrumental in the acquisition of the grounds of the Downs Hospital, in Sutton, Surrey, where the new hospital was to be built. He worked tirelessly as Chairman of the Building Committee, and eventually the Surrey branch of the Royal Marsden Hospital was opened by the Queen in 1963.

Smithers's intention was that the hospital and its associated Institute of Cancer Research should eventually be sited entirely at Sutton, but many of his colleagues were opposed to moving so far from the centre of London. Nevertheless the success of the Surrey branch over the subsequent decades more than vindicated his vision. He built up research in both radiotherapy and radiobiology and his unit acquired an international reputation for training young clinicians and scientists from many countries. In collaboration with the cancer professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley and experts of several other countries, he played a leading part in the advances which led to a spectacular increase in the cure rates of testicular cancer and Hodgkin's disease.

As a clinical scientist he concurred with the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in the view that a theory must be testable by experiments designed to prove it false. He stressed in many writings that cancer is a disorder of organisation of the human body, rather than a defect of cells. In a controversial article in the Lancet in 1962 entitled "Cancer - an Attack on Cytologism", he castigated the concept of cancer as a disease in which people are devoured by their own cells gone wrong, and criticised much of the cancer research of the time as based on this false premiss and lacking direction, thereby gaining the opprobrium of many in his own institute. He did, however, appreciate the irony that the improvements in treatment with which he was associated were achieved largely by the destruction of cancer cells using radiation and the non- specific cell poisons of which he philosophically disapproved, while the simultaneous efforts in cancer immunology yielded very little fruit.

It was, however, much more as a clinician than as a scientist that Smithers excelled. He set an outstanding example to generations of young doctors passing through his unit in how to relate to patients as people. He stressed the importance of reading the case notes thoroughly before meeting the patient and insisted on having a photograph of the patient in the notes to remind him of the personal details; in this way he was always able immediately to gain the patient's confidence. This sensitive approach was linked with meticulous attention to the details of the treatment. He would tell his students more about his pleasure in the recovery and long life of individual patients than about the statistical results of his treatments.

David Smithers delighted in his family, his home and his beautiful garden in Knockholt, in Kent, where he grew roses and entertained his staff. His tea parties, when he took great pleasure in showing visitors his roses, accompanied by croquet on the lawn, provided his overseas visitors with a quintessential memory of England.

After retirement in 1974 he began a new career as an author. He wrote on a number of subjects mainly with a literary flavour, including Jane Austen, Dickens and his beloved Kent. In This Idle Trade (1989), a book written mainly about doctors as authors, he stressed the importance of a broadly based humanist education for recruits to the medical profession, and expressed his concerns about the danger that the modern intensive training of doctors may produce too narrow a specialist who is not able to take a broad view.

When he gained a richly deserved knighthood in 1969 he followed his father and grandfather as the third in successive generations of his family to be so recognised for public services.

J. M. Henk

David Waldron Smithers, radiotherapist: born 17 January 1908; Professor of Radiotherapy, London University 1943-73 (Emeritus); Director, Radiotherapy Department, Royal Marsden Hospital 1943-73; President, British Institute of Radiology 1946-47, Faculty of Radiologists 1959- 61; Kt 1969; married 1933 Gwladys Angel (died 1992; one son, one daughter); died 20 July 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower