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Biographical entry Atkins, Sir Hedley John Barnard (1904 - 1983)

KBE 1967; KStJ 1970; MRCS 1932; FRCS 1934; MB, BCh 1932; MCh 1935; DM 1937; LRCP 1932.

  • Image of Atkins, Sir Hedley John Barnard
December 30, 1904
26 November 1983
General surgeon


Sir Hedley Atkins was the son of a distinguished Guy's general practitioner, Sir John Atkins KCMG, KCVO, FRCS, and Elizabeth May (née Smith) Hedley, by which name he was always known, was educated at Rugby, Trinity College, Oxford and Guy's. He was a man of commanding presence and excellent physique, playing rugby football for his school, Middlesex, The Harlequins and Guy's. He seldom missed attending Guy's matches for the rest of his life. He was a keen sailor and latterly a dedicated gardener.

Having obtained first class honours in his physiology degree at Oxford and the Hallett Prize in the primary FRCS examination he went to Guy's with an entrance scholarship where he won the Treasurer's gold medal in clinical surgery qualifying in 1932. All his resident appointments were at Guy's and he became an FRCS in 1934 and Master of Chirurgery at Oxford in 1935. Two years later, in 1937, at the early age of 31 he was appointed to the staff of Guy's as assistant surgeon and spent all his professional life in that institution. At one stage of the war, during the Blitz, the hospital was completely surrounded by fire and he had to direct the evacuation.

In 1942 he went to North Africa with the RAMC and subsequently served in Italy and the UK, was mentioned in despatches and was demobilised with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Hedley returned to Guy's after the war determined to bring a scientist's approach to what was then very much the art of surgery. He was appointed Director of the department of surgery and pursued his own special interest in breast diseases. He was a pioneer in using controlled trials to evaluate different modes of treatment of breast cancer and meticulous in his observance of ethical principles which was no easy task with such an emotive subject. Distinguished visitors from both home and abroad were regularly invited to take the Saturday morning rounds at Guy's and he also hosted outstanding courses of lectures on modern methods of measurement in science which were published in three volumes as Tools of biological research. Hedley's contribution to the field of breast cancer was twofold; first an appreciation of the importance of controlled clinical trials and second, a study of the hormonal factors influencing the prognosis. This work has a fitting memorial in the Hedley Atkins Breast Unit at New Cross Hospital.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Hedley joined the Court of Examiners in 1949, was elected to Council in 1952, Vice-President 1964-66 and was President from 1966 to 1969. His natural gifts made him the ideal choice for such a position and these were probably the happiest and proudest years of his life. He was Bradshaw Lecturer in 1965, Hunterian Orator in 1971 and joined the Court of Patrons in 1972. Hedley was a fluent speaker and enjoyed the opportunity which the College's monthly dinner gave him to address informally the Fellows and their guests. He had an excellent command of the English language due to his grounding in the classics and his lifelong habit of reading. He seldom used notes when lecturing.

His opinions were sought by many bodies and he served on the General Medical Council and on the clinical research board of the Medical Research Council. He presided over the Surgical Research Society in 1960. At this period many honours were conferred on him and he became honorary fellow of most of the colleges of surgeons.

He enjoyed visiting surgical centres abroad and was Sims Travelling Commonwealth Professor in 1961, acting as visiting professor in a number of American universities. He gave many eponymous lectures and was visiting examiner at the Universities of Cambridge, Durham, London, Birmingham and the West Indies. As an author he contributed widely to surgical and medical journals, mainly on breast disease, and his most recent publication in 1977 was autobiographical, Memoirs of a surgeon.

In 1953 the Royal College of Surgeons of England acquired Down House, the former home of Charles Darwin in the village of Downe in Kent and adjoining the College's Buckston Browne Research Farm. The ground floor of the house became a museum dedicated to Darwin, and Hedley and his wife moved into the upper floor which became their home. He was the honorary, and indeed enthusiastic, curator of the museum and tended it was reverent care. His love of gardening was given full rein on retirement and many generations of surgeons have enjoyed his gracious hospitality in Down House and its gardens.

Hedley married Gladys Gwendoline Jones, the daughter of a civil engineer, in 1933 and his family gave him great happiness. Hedley will be rememberd as a kind, scholarly surgeon who enjoyed helping the younger member of his profession. He died on 26 November 1983, survived by his wife and his two sons David, and Christopher, a physician in Canada.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit. med. J. 1983, 287, 1803; Lancet 1983, 2, 1375; The Times 1 December 1983; Daily Telegraph 29 November 1983.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England