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Biographical entry Ward, Michael Phelps (1925 - 2005)

CBE 1983, MRCS 1949; FRCS 1955; BA Cambridge 1946; MB BChir 1949; MA 1961; MD 1968; LRCP 1949; FRGS 1964.

26 March 1925
London, UK
7 October 2005
General surgeon and Mountaineer


Mike Ward, a pioneering climber and expert on altitude medicine and physiology, and a member of the 1953 expedition team which made the first ascent of Everest, was a consultant surgeon in London’s East End. He was born in London on 26 March 1925, the son of Wilfred Arthur Ward, a civil servant in Malaya, and Norah Anne Phelps, a former nurse. He was educated at Marlborough, where his housemaster was a veteran of two Everest expeditions, and went on to win the Ironmonger’s Company exhibition to read medicine at Peterhouse, Cambridge. There he climbed with the university club in France and sustained a fractured skull.

He completed his clinical training at the London Hospital and, after house jobs, did his National Service in the RAMC, during which time he was able to study aerial photographs taken by the RAF of the south face of Mount Everest and plan a new route to the summit through the treacherous ice cliffs of the Khumbu glacier. He took his ideas to the Himalayan committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society, who backed his scheme, and so launched the 1951 expedition, which paved the way for the successful 1953 ascent.

After the Everest expedition, Ward joined in the ensuing lecture tour, but did not care for its razzmatazz, and returned to train as a surgeon, as a registrar at the London, passed the FRCS, experienced the misery of thoracic surgery under Vernon Thompson, and the exhilaration of Hal Morton’s exchange residency at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, and was finally appointed consultant surgeon to two East London hospitals, Poplar and St Andrew’s, Bow. There he gave a first rate service to his poor patients, eschewed private practice, and carried on a mostly successful campaign against the administrators who got in the way of his work.

Whenever he could he went off to take part in mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas and Pamirs, carried out important research into high altitude physiology, and wrote many papers and the classic textbook High altitude medicine and physiology (London, Chapman and Hall Medical, 1989), which ran to three editions. For this work he was widely honoured, receiving the Cuthbert Peek award and the Founder’s gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and the Cullum medal of the American Geographical Society. He was president of the Cambridge Alpine Club, vice-president of the Alpine Club and master of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries.

Superbly fit and lean, Mike Ward was not always easy to get to know: seemingly aloof, if not sardonic, he was always gentle and kind to his patients, continuing as his own locum after he retired.

He married Felicity Jane Ewbank in 1957, by whom he had one son, Mark William. In 2002 he suffered a dislocation of the neck in a collision, which was successfully operated upon. Then, to much surprise, this superb athlete was found to have a cardiac valvular defect. He died as the result of an aortic aneurysm on 7 October 2005.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 17 October 2005; The Guardian 27 October 2005; BMJ 2005 331 1206].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England