Obituary: Dr Elizabeth Fletcher

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The Independent Online
Elizabeth Cross, general practitioner, born West Runcton Norfolk 26 August 1920, Chief Medical Officer BBC 1975-80, married 1951 Tony Fletcher (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved), died London 7 December 1992.

AFTER spending the war in the Foreign Office in Cairo and Rome, Elizabeth Cross was one of only three women accepted for the first year at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in 1947 when, preparing for the coming NHS, all London medical schools were obliged to take women students. I was another of the three and we remained close friends.

While raising her four children, Elizabeth Fletcher (she married in 1951) kept up her medicine in locum general practice and by listening to the problems of her friends and neighbours. She must have been about the world's best listener. Later, she had a distinguished career in the BBC and became its Chief Medical Officer. After retiring in 1980, she worked again in general practice until her last illness.

Original, perceptive and witty, she loved talking with patients and others. She was a shrewd, wise doctor with a big talent for seeing things from another person's point of view, for spotting what was artificial or insincere and for analysing pomposity, power games and manipulation. An irreverent streak in her character enhanced these qualities.

Elizabeth decided to study medicine because Geoffrey, her only brother and a graduate of St Thomas's, had died a horrible death in an open boat while on active service. She never got over this but incorporated it into her life and personality. She felt that learning at his hospital was something she owed Geoffrey.

To some people this may seem a poor motive for studying medicine, but Elizabeth Fletcher became an outstanding doctor. She had already developed an interest in the minutiae that revealed underlying situations and truths to people sufficiently perceptive to appreciate them. She knew the novels of Jane Austen and many others virtually off by heart. It was this rather than any deep interest in the mechanics of medicine or disease that gave her distinction. She was proficient and interested in conventional medicine, but she developed a remarkable capacity to study people and situations in ways more illuminating than conventional methods. At one time she began to train as a Freudian analyst, but became disillusioned with the organisation. In my view, she had a better, broader and more original understanding of human nature than most psychiatrists and psychoanalysts.

Elizabeth Fletcher's intellectual and artistic interests blossomed after her retirement from the BBC. She read constantly and widely and entertained her many friends. She was a talented artist and sold her pictures to tourists in her native Norfolk. She studied for an Arts degree with the Open University, prolonging it out of sheer enjoyment. Her enthusiasm for the Italian Renaissance and for Shakespeare spilt over and enriched her friends.

Unfortunately, she was not a writer. So far as I know, she never published anything. Her robust and shrewd observations, her wisdom and her witty analysis of situations benefited only her family, friends and patients. Even her last and most unpleasant illness fascinated her and she was able to describe her feelings, for instance, while talking to a surgeon 'who has had his hands in my guts'. This was typical of her and part of her way of coping with a fatal illness.

Elizabeth remained close to her children, who all supported her during her last illness. She became a grandmother only late in life. During her last months she was determined to remain alive to see her third grandchild, which she did. Amy, her first granddaughter, is now three months old.

(Photograph omitted)