Obituary: Dr Douglas Swinscow

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Thomas Douglas Victor Swinscow, writer, editor, physician, born 10 July 1917, Sub-Editor British Medical Journal 1946-64, Deputy Editor 1964-77, Associate Editor 1977-81, married 1941 Josephine Earle (three daughters), died 24 September 1992.

Douglas Swinscow, the former deputy editor of the British Medical Journal and by profession a doctor of medicine, could easily have filled an academic chair in botany, philosophy, literature, or even the history of garden design. He had the rare gift of combining the discipline of science, especially in the acquisition and retention of masses of precise information, all available for instant recall, with the visionary qualities of the poet and mystic.

'Dougal' Swinscow was born in 1917, qualified in medicine at St Thomas's Hospital medical school in 1940 and joined the Army. He served first in the North Africa campaign but later volunteered for the First Airborne Division. In September 1944 he took part in the Battle of Arnhem. He describes the parachute drop in his autobiography. 'On leaving the Dakota I had heard the reassuring musical notes, like the tinkling of a Chinese glass lantern, as the parachute opened. It was a sunny afternoon with a mainly blue sky and hardly any breeze, perfect for parachuting.' The scene, of course, soon changed. Swinscow eventually escaped across the Rhine at the withdrawal of the remnants of the First Airborne Division, but not before making all possible arrangements for the continuing care of the wounded. His account of the street-fighting in which he was under continuous mortar and machine-gun fire for days makes compelling reading.

After the war Swinscow joined the staff of the British Medical Journal, first as a sub-editor, but eventually later as deputy editor. He was in post during the stirring days of the inception of the National Health Service, a time when, as he says, 'rancour was the keynote of the debates on the NHS, both within the medical profession and between the profession and the Government'. But later he said: 'Without a coherent and responsible BMA (British Medical Association) the NHS might never have got off the ground, for the BMA, in its medico-political experience over many years, in its opposition as much as its agreement, in its ability to solicit its members' views and to make decisions, was as necessary a part of Bevan's political life as the pebbles that a crocodile accumulates in its lower stomach to give it greater weight, more effective thrust, when plunging into the river.'

As well as carrying out his editorial duties, Swinscow found time to found the British Lichen Society and its journal the Lichenologist and write several books on a strikingly diverse selection of subjects: Statistics at Square One (1976), a standard work on elementary medical statistics, The Macrolichens of East Africa (1988; with Professor H. Krog of Oslo University), Reap a Destiny - divagations of a Taoist (1989; his autobiography), and The Mystic Garden (1992); the later works illustrating the philosophical and mystical sides of his nature as the earlier had the scientific.

After his retirement from the BMJ he continued to work in medical journalism, filling the post of technical editor to two of the special journals of the BMJ, the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases and the British Journal of Ophthalmology. Swinscow's outstanding characteristic was that he was so civilised. It wasn't that he paraded his knowledge of such a wide variety of subjects, one only found out about that later, but rather that he was just easy to talk to and especially helpful to ask advice from; from the point of view of editor of one of the special journals he seemed to know all the answers.

(Photograph omitted)