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Biographical entry Murley, Sir Reginald Sydney (1916 - 1997)

KBE 1979; TD 1946; MRCS 1938; FRCS 1946; MB BS London 1939; MS 1948; LRCP 1938; Hon FRACS 1979; Hon FCCSSA 1979; Hon FRCSI 1980; Hon FDSRCS 1981.

  • Image of Murley, Sir Reginald Sydney
2 August 1916
2 October 1997
General surgeon


Reginald Murley, known universally to friend and foe alike as ‘Reggie’, was a consultant surgeon at the Royal Northern Hospital and a former President of the College. He was born on 2 August 1916. His father, Sydney Herbert, was a fur trader and a general manager of the Hudson Bay Company. His mother, Beatrice, was a cousin of Lillian Bayliss, founder of the Old Vic theatre. Reggie was educated at Dulwich College, where some of the features of his rugged extrovert personality rapidly became apparent. In 1934 he entered St Bartholomew’s Hospital, then at its zenith as one of the leading teaching hospitals, where he won several prizes in anatomy and physiology.

Anticipating that war was inevitable, he joined the Territorial Army early in 1939 and a week before the second world war began found himself in the No 168 City of London Cavalry Field Ambulance, and as a consequence had to wear breeches, spurs, and learn to ride a horse. He travelled widely in the Army, seeing service in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, gaining invaluable experience, mainly in plastic surgery. He returned to England in 1944 and was posted as a surgeon to No 53 Field Surgical Unit in France, Holland and Germany, and gained extensive experience of the surgical aspects of modern warfare prior to his demobilisation as a Major.

Following his return to civilian life, he was appointed as an anatomy demonstrator at Bart’s. From 1946 to 1949 together he was surgical chief assistant there, with clinical assistantships at St Mark’s and St Peter’s Hospitals. He passed the final FRCS examination in 1946. In the same year, he was appointed consultant surgeon to St Alban’s City Hospital, and in 1952 as consultant surgeon to the Royal Northern Hospital in London. He continued to serve both these institutions with distinction for the remainder of his professional life.

He did some excellent research on Geoffrey Keynes’ conservative approach to breast cancer and demonstrated that it had advantages in survival rate over the then widely practised radical mastectomy. He also worked on the detection and prevention of venous thrombosis, was awarded an Hunterian Professorship on this subject, and became an early advocate of emergency pulmonary embolectomy.

Although he always saw himself first and foremost as a practising surgeon, by the mid 1940s Reggie became increasingly apprehensive about the introduction of a National Health Service and his interest in, or rather his disillusionment with, medical politics dates from this time. As a senior surgical registrar at a special meeting of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons just before the NHS began he had the courage and temerity to criticise the College and the President for “a tactical blunder which had confused and divided the profession, weakened the position of the BMA and strengthened the hand of the minister”. Though he and his fellow rebels lost the ensuing vote, Reggie remained opposed to ‘nationalised medicine’ and he firmly believed that the profession had been sold out by the machinations of a few senior members. He was a founder member of the Fellowship for Freedom in Medicine and was its President in 1974.

As one of the College’s first surgical tutors and a regional adviser, he was elected to the Council in 1970, and as President on Bastille Day (14 July) in 1977. He devoted himself with his customary vigour to that office: he was frequently controversial, loyally adherent to his principles, acerbic but amusing, argumentative but endearing, and, above all, devoted to the College and its history. He was an accomplished public speaker and punctiliously disciplined in keeping to his allotted time span, which was remarkable given that he was an inveterate chatterer who attempted to dominate every conversation.

Much as he enjoyed his three years as President, he came to feel in his latter years that his most important contribution to the College was his eight years as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian collection. John Hunter, the founder of scientific surgery, was Murley’s hero and his devotion to the collection of Hunter’s specimens knew no limits. Ever alert to the slightest whiff of a threat, he fiercely opposed any attempt to diminish the importance of Hunter in the College’s scheme of priorities. During a particularly difficult period, when his health was already in decline, he earned the unfailing support of the elected trustees during a long period of arduous meetings and only relinquished the chair when he felt that the ship was in calmer waters once more.

Reggie’s appointment to the 1st Cavalry Division in 1939 was apposite, for this ambience suited his attributes well, and he remained a cavalryman at heart throughout his life. With his booming, resonant voice, accompanied by a hearty guffaw, staff and patients alike became aware of his arrival long before he appeared in person. Not for him the constraints of devious Machiavellian diplomacy which he generally termed ‘pussy-footing around’. He remained firmly wedded to the Cardigan principle of a full-blooded frontal assault, sabre drawn, no matter how great the odds. It was these very qualities which made him such a steadfast ally and stalwart opponent: no one was left long to linger in anguished doubt as to the respective camp to which they had been assigned.

Reggie was without question a member of that rapidly dwindling band of men known as ‘characters’: a quality composed of a judicious mixture of intelligence, ability and individuality; difficult to define but instantly recognisable features common to many men who made our country great and now in very short supply.

In 1947, he married Daphne Butler née Garrod who had been twice widowed in the war; he inherited a step daughter, Susan, and they had a further two daughters, Jennifer and Hilary, and three sons, David, Gavin and Anthony. There are nine grandchildren. Sadly his final years were clouded by steadily progressive disability and he died on 2 October 1997.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 24 October 1997; BMJ 1998 316 868, with portrait; The Daily Telegraph 23 October 1997].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England