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Biographical entry Phillips, Hugh (1940 - 2005)

MRCS and FRCS 1970; BSc London 1961; MB BS London 1964; LRCP 1970.

19 March 1940
London, UK
24 June 2005
Norfolk, UK
Orthopaedic surgeon


Hugh Phillips, the first surgeon from Norfolk to become president of the Royal College of Surgeons, died within his first year of office. A past president of the British Orthopaedic Association and the orthopaedic section of the Royal Society of Medicine, Hugh influenced every aspect of orthopaedic surgery. Voted Trainer of the Year in 1990 by the British Orthopaedic Trainees Association, he was committed to surgical training and later became chairman of the Orthopaedic Specialist Advisory Committee. Hugh earned a reputation for fairness both as an examiner and in the arrangements for rapid response teams reporting on major concerns in hospital practice. He was appointed vice-president of the College in 2003 and elected president the following year.

Hugh's principal clinical interest was surgery of the hip. He founded the British Hip Society, was influential in establishing the National Joint Registry, and was said to have carried out over 6,000 joint replacements in his career.

Hugh's family came from Treorchy in the Rhondda, where his grandfather and father were miners during the depression of the 1930s. His father, Morgan Phillips, a member of the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, resolved not to produce another generation of miners and walked to London where he became a manager at UGB Charlton, a thermoplastics company in south east London that made Bakelite. His mother, Elizabeth Evans, came from north Wales and contributed to Hugh's rather strict upbringing. Hugh was born on 19 March 1940 in Blackheath, the youngest of three children in a Welsh-speaking family. His older brother and sister returned to Wales during the Blitz, but his father's work was important to the war effort and Hugh remained with his parents. His earliest memories were of bombs and air raid shelters. While proud of his Welsh roots he considered himself a Londoner and commented once that he had "only been to Wales twice and it rained both times".

He attended Henwick Primary School and the Roan Grammar School in Greenwich, where he became a prefect. He was a Queen's Scout. Hugh followed his eldest brother into medicine, winning a state scholarship to Bart's and completing a BSc in physiology. The life of a medical student in the 1960s was relaxed by the standards of later years and Hugh embraced it to the full. An all-round sportsman, he played cricket for Bart's, was captain of soccer and a member of the Vicarage Club. For a short period he generated additional income by working as a waiter on the liner Pendennis Castle, an experience that left him with a fund of anecdotes. Surprisingly, this most gregarious of men later listed "avoidance of all clubs" among his recreations in Who's Who.

In 1966 he married Trish (Patricia Ann Cates Kennard), a physiotherapist at Bart's who later became chair of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. They had three daughters, Jane, Katie and Susie, and at the time of his death they had six grandchildren.

Hugh owed much to his Welsh background, including a love of music. He was an excellent pianist and a former head choirboy at St James, Kidbrooke, often performing as a soloist at the Royal Festival Hall and elsewhere. He also inherited a strong sense of social justice and a dogged determination that did not permit him to leave a task unfinished, a trait he once described as "a black streak of Celtic bloody-mindedness".

In 1970 he was appointed to the new higher surgical training programme in orthopaedics at Bart's and in the same year was found to have Hodgkin's lymphoma, which in those days had few survivors. After a harrowing period of intensive chemotherapy under the care of Gordon Hamilton Fairley, a pioneer of chemotherapy, Hugh Phillips became one of those few. The treatment, always at weekends so that he could be back at work on Monday, lasted two and a half years, when Hugh decided it should be terminated because nobody could tell him how long it should be continued. He never sought special consideration because of his illness and took a full share of workloads that would now be considered unacceptably heavy even for healthy people.

In 1975 Hugh Phillips was appointed as the fifth orthopaedic consultant at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, where he is remembered as a hard worker, a loyal colleague and an outstanding surgeon. A man of great personal charm with a disarming sense of humour, Hugh was held in the highest regard by his patients, colleagues and trainees.

He also displayed a natural flair for the politics of medicine and was a great exponent of the 'Delphic process', which allowed him to implement important changes at astounding speed without pointless discussion on the assumption that changes for the better would not be reversed.

Although a Londoner, Hugh loved Norfolk and was intensely proud of his association with the county and its people. In 1996 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk.

Hugh Phillips was elected president because of his unrivalled understanding of training and education and his ability to achieve change, but his presidency was tragically curtailed. In the last minutes of a social occasion in Norwich on 26 June 2004 to celebrate both his achievement in becoming president and his retirement from clinical practice, a trivial injury caused a fracture that proved to be pathological. The incident occurred less than four weeks before he assumed office. Many would have taken the easy path and stepped aside but despite debilitating treatment, increasing ill health and the exhortation of friends and colleagues, Hugh chose to continue the task he had been elected to complete. He confronted a number of major professional issues with characteristic determination and scored some notable successes but his unavoidable absences for treatment were to make this a difficult year for the College. In his last presidential letter for the Bulletin he wrote, "I had not anticipated that my presidency would last only one year but, sadly, ill-health has determined that I should stand down, a matter of immeasurable personal regret." He may also be remembered for a casual remark in another presidential letter to the effect that surgeons might avoid a great deal of confusion if they called themselves 'Dr' rather than 'Mr', a comment that attracted much media attention.

During April 2005, he completed a physically demanding College visit to every hospital in Wales by road within one week, the warmth of his personality making a great impression in hospitals where the College had been seen as remote and unapproachable. A few days after his return he suffered a pulmonary embolus and, despite intensive treatment, including thrombolysis, he did not recover and died at home in Norfolk on 24 June 2005, less than one year after the condition came to light.

His funeral service, which filled Norwich Cathedral, was attended by representatives of the Colleges, orthopaedic surgery, hospital colleagues and staff, the County Lieutenancy, the Department of Health, patients and the people of Norwich. The presidential gown covered the coffin as the Lord Bishop of Norwich, a personal friend, gave the address and spoke warmly of both Hugh's humanity and his contribution to surgery.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Bulletin RCS vol.87, No.8, Sept 2005, p.261; The Guardian 1 July 2005; The Times 12 July 2005; BMJ 2005 331 354].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England