Obituary: Robin Cavendish
Thursday 11 August 1994
TO KNOW Robin Cavendish was to know the personification of courage. Many people achieve moments of great courage, few are called on to show it continuously for 36 years.
When Cavendish was struck down by polio at the age of 28, he was given first three months, then one year to live. Totally paralysed from the neck down, he became technically a 'responaut', wholly reliant on a machine that breathed for him. Against all advice, he left hospital after a year and confounded the experts on his life expectancy. He outlived some of them, and occasionally had himself to be the expert who explained his condition to consultants and nurses. He became one of the longest-lived responauts in Britain, a medical phenomenon.
To see Cavendish simply as 'a polio victim' would be a mistake, and would not explain the reason why his death leaves such a gap. What makes him memorable was what he did for others. In the 1960s he tracked down and listed the circumstances of all the responauts in Britain. Until then there had been no record of how many people lived confined to 'iron lungs'.
Cavendish's friend Teddy Hall, the polymathic Oxford professor, developed with his help a wheelchair with respirator built in, so that Cavendish was no longer confined to bed. This chair, made in 1962, was a model for others, Cavendish being determined that mobility should be available to other polio victims. He raised money from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust for the first dozen chairs, and eventually persuaded the then Department of Health to fund a series of chairs, manufactured by Teddy Hall's company Littlemore Scientific Engineering.
Using himself as the guinea-pig, Cavendish tested and helped to market equipment that has changed the lives of countless disabled people. There was in particular the Possum, developed by scientists at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in conjunction with him. It was devised to control electronically the immediate environment of the severely disabled. Cavendish could just use his head and by moving it to left or right he could activate the Possum's co-ordinating box, enabling him to telephone, turn on the television or adjust the central heating.
He was moved by the plight of families who could never holiday together, and so originated the idea and provided the impetus for the building of a holiday complex with all the facilities for the care of severely disabled responauts. Here they and their families could enjoy holidays in attractive surroundings on the South Coast. With Dr GT Spencer - consultant in charge of the Lane-Fox Unit at St Thomas's Hospital, London - and others, Cavendish founded the charity Refresh to raise the money. The Netley Waterside House, overlooking Southampton Water, which opened in 1977, should be his public memorial.
Cavendish was born in 1930 and educated at Winchester College before attending RMA Sandhurst and being commissioned into the 60th Rifles. After seven years in the Army he left as a Captain to join Thompson Smithett, to help start up a tea-broking business in Africa. He married Diana Blacker in 1957 and returned to Kenya, where he was taken ill with polio in December 1958.
On a personal level Robin Cavendish's influence was perhaps even more widespread than through his work. Over the years he and his remarkable wife built up a huge and ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances. Young people found him an irresistible ear to pour confidences into and his stimulating and down-to-earth attitude to problems helped many. His contemporaries would drive across country to ask his advice and enjoy his company. It was as if his sedentary life gave him a broader viewpoint and a sharper vision than the rest of us, and his capacity for laughing at, as well as with, his friends was healthily deflating.
An avid reader of the newspapers, he questioned mercilessly and passed on gossip as happily as he received it, but somehow the malice disappeared as it went through him. He had a natural graciousness: his lack of evident resentment at his own condition made helping him a positive pleasure.
A house full of humour and good temper will never lack visitors. Add good food and drink, good conversation and comfortable beds and it is hard to keep them away. Friends booked themselves in to stay for weekends with the Cavendishes in Oxfordshire months ahead. They stayed in a normal family home, not an invalid's household. It was Robin who would say when you arrived, 'Now, what will you have to drink?' or send you down to the wine cellar: 'Get a couple of bottles from the top row of the second rack on the left . . .'
Robin and Diana visited widely until a short time before his death, travelling from Oxford to London and further and returning home in their specially adapted van late at night, Robin criticising Diana's driving like any other husband. Travels abroad in the earlier days to visit the battlefields of northern France were typical of the Cavendishes' energy and their refusal to accept Robin's condition as a major restriction.
Naturally unsentimental, Robin's love for his wife, son and daughter-in-law was well-concealed and totally evident. He knew that he had a superb family and one hopes that he was also aware of how much he enriched their lives and those of everyone else who came in touch with him.
It is a strange irony that, though professing to be an unbeliever himself, he had a capacity for making other people feel closer to God.
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