top of page

The UBH Staff 1948/50: Mr Debenham’s war diaries


George Thorpe  M1950


I started my clinical medical studies in Birmingham in 1947 spending the next three years as a student and a further two as a resident in the QE and General Hospitals, followed by a life in General Practice near the city. During this time I was privileged to get to know many of the individuals in the accompanying picture.


It was significant that as a Dresser I was attached to the firm of Baron Rose and Fauset Welsh. My first House Job was to Mr Robert K. Debenham whose Secretary Jean Overall became a personal friend of my wife and myself. Fauset and Robert became close friends, living into their nineties. After Fauset’s first wife’s death, Jean became Fauset’s second wife in 1970.


Last year we were having lunch with Jean and I was admiring the picture which is the reason for this article. It was hanging in Fauset and Jean’s sitting room. Fauset had written the surnames of some but not all of the individuals in pencil on the back and it has proved an interesting exercise to complete the list from a rapidly reducing group of contemporaries. From a knowledge of dates of consultant appointments and retirements the picture can be dated to between 1948 and 1950.


It is difficult to find a reason for the timing of the photograph. The start of the NHS in 1948 has been suggested but the NHS was not popular with consultants in its early years. Another possibility is to mark the return of many men from service in the armed forces, many with distinction.


The United Birmingham Hospital is referred to in Hansard for 30th.May 1934 comprising a new hospital, the Queen Elizabeth to be built in Birmingham, and replace the old Queen’s hospital, which with the existing General Hospital would have a single teaching hospital staff. In the event the Queen Elizabeth was completed and opened in 1938.



The presence of Dame Hilda Lloyd as the only woman consultant is notable in contrast to today when two thirds of students in the Medical School are women. Dame Hilda was the first lady President of the RCOG in 1949 which itself was established only in 1928. Her bust by Jacob Epstein stood for many years in the entrance hall of the Medical School with that of Sir Arthur Thomson. The hall now looks rather bare  without them. Sir Arthur was awarded an M.C. in the first world war and made Commandant of the General Hospital during the second world war. He was in charge when the hospital was set on fire in 1941. After the war finished he was given a  personal Chair of Therapeutics and became Dean of the Medical Faculty from1951-59, President of the B.M.A. in 1958-59 and was knighted at that time. Sir Arthur was a very generous donor to the Medical School and University over fifty years. Two of the groups who benefit are the recipients of the medical graduates’ thirty year anniversary dinner, and also the foundation of the Sands Cox Society and Aesculapius which he established on a sound financial footing.

I have personal memory of Sir Leonard Parsons who was Dean of the Faculty when I was a student. A group of us were walking down Ladywood road in deep conversation unintentionally blocking the pavement and preventing Sir Leonard passing us. With a very courteous “good morning” he stepped into the road and let us pass.

He was always a very courteous gentleman and a respected Paediatrician, a founder member and President of the Paediatric Association. His son Clifford followed closely in his father’s footsteps guiding the Children’s Hospital through its early years of the new speciality involved in operating on babies suffering with congenital heart disease.


United Birmingham Hospital Staff Picture 1948–1950


Add photo


Left to right.

Inset: Dr James F. Brailsford (Radiologist), Sir Leonard Parsons (Physician & Paediatrician), Dr Harold Black (Radiologist), Prof L. Hogben (Statistician), Mr A.L. D'Abreu (Surgeon), Mr Samuel Davidson (O&G), Mr W. Barnie Adshead (O&G), Prof William Melville Arnott (Physician), Dr Ernest Bulmer (Physician).

Back Row: Dr Ronald St’Johnston (Physician), Dr Owen Williams (Physician), Dr C.A. Pieeney (Bacteriologist), Prof John Hall (Pathology), Dr J.F. Bromley (Radiotherapist), Dr Clifford Parsons (Physician & Paediatrician), Mr Bryan Brooke (Surgeon), Prof Hugh C. McClaren (O&G), Mr Guy Baines (Surgeon), Mr Arnold Gourevitch (Surgeon), Mr J. Leigh Collis (Surgeon), Dr David Humphries (Physician), Mr Alexander Innes (Surgeon), Prof McKeown (Social Medicine).

Third Row: Prof Brodie Hughes (Neurosurgeon), Dr William Small (Neurosurgeon), Dr E.W. Assinder (Venereologist), Dr Bayliss Ash (Dermatologist), Mr R.K. Debenham (Surgeon), Dr Bernard Tate (Dermatologist), Dr Oscar Brenner (Cardiologist), Mr R.R. Strang (E.N.T. Surgeon), Mr R.O. Walker (Dental Surgeon), Mr T.S. Donovan (Orthopaedic Surgeon), Dr Carey Smallwood (Physician & Paediatrician), Dr E. Thorpe (Radiologist), Dr John Malins (Physician).

Second Row: Dr Trevor Cooke (Physician), Dr George Whitfield (Physician), Mr James Moffet (E.N.T. Surgeon), Mr Clarke (Anaesthetist), Prof John Squire (Experimental Pathology), Mr F. Selby Tate (O&G), Mr G. Hurford (House Governor), Dr C. Teal, (Radiologist), Dr Bernard Murtagh (Anaesthetist), Prof James Smellie (Paediatrician), Mr Fauset Welsh (Surgeon), Dr Brian Taylor (Physician), Mr Jameson Evans (Ophthalmologist), Dr Gilbert Hall (Neurologist).

First Row: Mr W. Stirk Adams (E.N.T. Surgeon), Dame Hilda Lloyd (O&G), Prof F. A. S Stammers (Surgeon), Prof James Hardy (Physician), Mr James Leather (Surgeon), Prof K.D. Wilkinson (Physician), Mr Baron Rose (Surgeon), Mr H.H. Sampson (Surgeon), Prof P.C.P. Cloake (Neurologist), Mr Scott Mason (Surgeon), Prof Arthur Thomson (Physician), Mr Hugh Donovan (Surgeon), Dr Henry Featherstone (Anaesthetist).


James Brailsford could not afford to train as a doctor but was employed by Sir John Robertson, the city medical officer in the Birmingham University Pathology Department, as a photographer of animals suffering from tuberculosis. He joined the Army in the first World War as a Radiographer and was mentioned in despatches.

After the war he was sponsored through the medical school, by the Cadbury family; qualifying aged 35 in 1923. Dr Brailsford soon joined the teaching hospital as a Consultant Radiologist gaining a world wide reputation in academic radiology. He became the first president the British Association of Radiologists of which he was a founder member: a brilliant man, but with strongly held opinions leaving him lonely in old age.


Barney Adshead is remembered with affection as an extrovert personality who suffered a speech impediment for which he compensated by singing during his operating lists. He played for both Warwickshire County Cricket Club and Aston Villa football Club.


James Leather also was a notable athlete whose daughter was a world class runner. Bryan Brooke developed an interest in rowing at Corpus Christi Cambridge, he returned annually for many years to coach the college boat. After demobilization he became Reader in Surgery and working with Professor Stammers, Professor Hardy and Dr Trevor Cooke perfected the surgical procedure using the Koenig-Run bag, for which Professor Hardy had obtained one of the first licences to import. This combination made it possible for patients suffering from Ulcerative Colitis to live

active and largely normal lives.


Bryan Brooke was an enthusiastic amateur artist and with help from Ken Garlick, a lecturer at the Barber Institute, established an Autumn Art Exhibition at the QE at which all the hospital staff were encouraged to exibit. They were also responsible for the Midland Medical Art Society which held yearly exhibitions at Dudley Road Hospital, where members could buy or borrow pictures.

Looking at other interests of consultants it is of note that Dr Trevor Cooke who joined the staff after the war played hockey, tennis and squash at county level.

Dr Bromley, one of the early specialists in Radiotherapy, lost his left index finger as a result of radiation. During the war he was at Halton Air Force Hospital, not far from Oxford where Floury was working on the production of Penicillin which at that time was not known to be a safe drug. Dr Bromley had a patient with a septicaemia who was terminally ill, Flourey supplied the new drug and the patient recovered with no ill effects. As Honorary Consultant to the R.A.F. he was asked,during the Cold War, to provide the Government with a report on the radioactive effects of possible Russian atomic bombs. This was a very real threat in the 1950s.

Ernest Bulmer, an Edinburgh graduate was appointed as a Physician to the United Birmingham Hospital pre-war in which he served becoming consultant physician to the 21st Army Group with the rank of Brigadier. He was appointed  CBE and also an Hon. Physician to the Queen.


Prof W. Melville Arnott also an Edinburgh graduate, the first full time Professor of Medicine, 1946-71, and Foundation Professor of Cardiology Birmingham, 1971-74, a brilliant physician, later knighted for his contributions to medicine. He was reputed to have driven railway trains during the General Railway Strike in 1928 as a student. His interest in trains continued as he would frequently glance at his watch as a Bristol express went past East Ground windows.


A third Edinburgh student was Sam Davidson who was a member of the R.A.F.V.R. pre war, and served as Squadron Leader during the war. He was awarded an A.F.C. for Valour and Gallantry in the face of danger not in direct contact with the enemy.


Prof Alan Stammers was born in 1898 saw service and was wounded in the First World War, and in the Second World War rose to Brigadier in the North African and Italian campaigns. He became the first full time Professor of Surgery apparently on a salary of £1,000 pa. Two members of his unit went on to hold London Chairs of Surgery and one the Presidency of the English RCS. Prof Stammers was succeeded by A.L. d’Abreu to the principal chair of surgery although his main interests lay within the chest. Jack Collis who shared a ward with H.H. Sampson, both being chest surgeons. I am told that a Gastroplasty developed by Jack Collis is still the preferred operation for certain types of hiatus hernia. He received a personal chair in Chest Surgery.


Fauset Welsh had included plastic surgery during his training and was appointed as an adult general surgeon especially interested in cleft palates and hare lips at the Children’s Hospital. During the blitz Fauset cycled to either Lewis’s store or Ansell’s brewery where emergency theatres were situated. When, in retirement, he learnt that my nephew was going as a young surgeon to an up country hospital in West Africa; he asked to meet him and gave him his own personal set of surgical instruments.


Dr John Malins whose grandfather, Sir Edward Malins was an Obstetrician in Birmingham ,was appointed to the Consultant staff as a Physician in 1946. Diabetes became his principle interest and through his clinics he developed a practice running into many thousands. His detailed interest in the study of medicine and his ability to empathise with people held this all together. The clinical experience provided by these clinics was the base for the tremendous amount of learning, teaching, training and research that took part in the unit. One example of this is the drop in infant mortality from 30% in the 40s in diabetic mothers to less than 2% in Birmingham figures 45 years later. John was a very likable person with a remarkable memory for patients and details of their families and circumstances, which endeared him to them. He was the Admissions Tutor to the Medical School for 17 years and Linacre Fellow of the RCP, with responsibility for maintaining standards in medical specialities in Britain.

John played hockey for Worcester and the Midlands, and was a keen gardener all his life. He was married for a second time in later life to Penelope Hobhouse, a garden designer. They both cared for the NT Property at Tintinhull and John in retirement published a book on pruning.


Dr George Whitfield was briefly a general practitioner in Sutton Coldfield before joining the RAMC on the outbreak of war, to serve as an ADMS in the British 1st Army and was mentiond in despatches. He joined Prof Arnott’s new unit after the war and became a Consultant Physician 1948. He was meticulous in his practice of medicine and sometimes referred to as the Doctor’s Physician.

George Whitfield was appointed to the post of Postgraduate Dean in 1955 which he held till 1974, becoming Professor in 1966, with responsibility for postgraduate medical education in the Region, including General Practice. George Whitfield’s influence on the whole concept of organized post graduate training both in the West Midlands and Nationally must have been very great. It is of note that he was awarded a CBE and in retirement he was appointed as a Deputy Lieutenant in the County of the West Midlands.


During the second World War a large American Base Hospital was sited in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Dr William Sweet (American surgeons retain their qualifying doctorate), established the first neurosurgical unit in the QE building, to be joined by Prof Brodie Hughes in 1947. Dr Sweet who was a popular surgeon who stayed at the QE for several years after the war before returning to Boston. Mr R.K. Debenham, always affectionately referred to as Deb, kept diaries of his service in the RAMC from1939 to 1945 throughout the Second World War. The Diaries were printed in 1990 and Mrs Jean Welsh to whom he had given a copy, has kindly allowed me to extract.


Deb describes how Professor Humphrey F. Humphries, who had commanded a Military Hospital in the first war and in 1939 was Professor of Dental Surgery had been asked to form and command a Territorial Hospital of 600 beds based on Birmingham Medical School in 1939. Deb said that he considered himself  fortunate to be included along with Featherstone, Smellie, Stammers, Bulmer, Jimmy Moffat, Nobby Clarke, Wilfred Mills, and a good many more. The 7th Military Hospital was mobilised on the outbreak of war and sent to France on 1st April 1940 and opened in tents and huts at Etaples, near Le Touquet amongst sand dunes on the site of a first World War Hospital. The unexpected early German advance through the Ardennes led to the British retreat from Dunkirk and evacuation of the Birmingham Military Hospital through Boulogne on May 22nd having seen very little action.


In the Autumn of 1940 Deb was promoted Lieutenant Colonel as officer-in-charge of the Surgical Division of the 7th General Hospital, then based in old factory buildings at Leeds. Here he comments on a period of inactivity, “It has been said and it’s true that War consists of long periods of idleness and boredom and short periods of intense activity and excitement.” In a convoy leaving the Clyde in January 1941 into mid Atlantic, round the Cape and landing at Suez in March, the Hospital was taken by further convoy to Crete and disembarked on 19th April.


The Hospital, largely under canvas, was laid out on a narrow strip of land on the north coast of the island. This coincided with the evacuation of British and New Zealand troops from Greece to Crete. Fighting with German paratroopers and bombing attacks continued in the island, on April 25th. The Hospital took 500 patients, some serious. Deb describes how he and his friend Arnold Gourevitch split the work between them and the other pair of surgeons on alternate take-in days. During May there were 847 patients in the hospital which was bombed. After this surgery was carried out in local caves and preparation made for evacuation from the island. Deb was in charge of the rear party which involved a 7 mile withdrawal to a tented hospital site near an area of fighting and there were a good many new patients, many in need of surgery. Deb and Arnold did 21 cases in the afternoon but those with abdominal wounds were moribund.


Finally Deb was evacuated from the beach to the cruiser “Abdele” at 2.30am on Sunday 1st June. Arnold Gourevitch was taken prisoner and after months in the mountains, with help of local people he escaped and met up with Deb in Egypt.

Arnold was decorated with an M.C. and Deb was mentioned in dispatches for services in Crete.


Deb’s next posting was to 16th GH in the Sudan on July 14th 1941, a dull uninteresting time with a bad hot climate and fly infestation. The only relief was camel and later horse riding with a fellow Officer. Deb was finally pleased to be

posted to No 8 GH in Alexandra during the first week of January 1942 as O.C. Surgical Wing. During ebb and floe of the North African Campaign, he met Dr Bernard Tate who was Dermatologist to the Middle East and Alan Stammers

also then working in Egypt.


Deb arrived in Italy on 3rd January 1944 following the course of the war and by the 18th was working at No 2 General Hospital (GH) within the sound of gun fire. Surgery had to be radical. Flesh wounds needed draining and often excision and he found the new pencillin “marvellous stuff” Deb notes that he travelled 24 hours by train over the Apennines to carry out a locum for Lt/Col D’Abreu a Chest Specialist at No 89GH where penicillin was proving invaluable in treating empyema.


Deb boarded the Llangibby Castle for convoy home arriving in the Clyde on March 15th. After D-Day on June 6th 1944 Deb worked on the Hard at Gosport doing Triage work on casualties back from Normandy, many being sent on to Birmingham for further treatment. Deb then left in a Landing Craft for the Normandy beaches at 6pm 5th August, arriving the next morning where he met Brigadier Porritt, Consultant Surgeon to the 21st Army Group. He stayed responsible for the surgical wing of No 81 GH but constantly was moved from one hospital to another with final promotion to Consultant Surgeon to the Second Army, with the rank of Brigadier. He considered that he had the best job in the RAMC, and although he did little surgery himself, he was constantly in contact with surgeons and their cases. For most of the rest of the war the Allies were advancing, which compared very favourably with his own

experience of retreat in Crete.


Deb’s final experience before return to civilian life was to takea part in clearing up Belsen Concentration Camp: he writes that words failed to describe the horror that they saw. Deb was very proud to received a military CBE presented by the King in 1

Much interesting detail has of necessity to be left from thisrecord with mention of only a relatively few of the individuals in the picture. They have contributed so much in both war and peace to the care of patients and the enhancement of Medicine and Surgery, which must have advanced more in the last seventy years than at any other time in history. I should like to add my personal thanks to colleagues whom it has been a real delight to have contacted and share old memories

bottom of page