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Biographical entry Smith, Rodney, Baron Smith of Marlow in the County of Buckinghamshire (1914 - 1998)

KBE 1975; MRCS 1937; FRCS 1939; MS London 1941; Hon DSc Exeter 1974; Hon DSc Leeds 1976; Hon MD Zurich 1979; LRCP 1937; Hon FRACS 1957; Hon FRCS Edinburgh 1975; Hon FACS 1975; Hon FRCS Canada 1976; Hon FRCS Ireland 1976; Hon FRCS South Africa 1976.

  • Image of Smith, Rodney, Baron Smith of Marlow in the County of Buckinghamshire
1 July 1998
General surgeon


Lord Smith was one of our great presidents. Successive holders of that office have faced many and various challenges, but by any measure the confrontation between the Labour government and the BMA from 1974 to 1975 was a major crisis that threatened the future of consultant practice. Rodney Smith, as he was then, was equal to the occasion; by behind the scenes diplomacy he played a vital part in the resolution of the conflict. Yet this was only one of the many tasks he successfully undertook on behalf of the College in a long and ambitious career. In parallel, he developed a formidable surgical skill, combined with a bold and innovative approach, which made him a world leader in the field of pancreatico-biliary surgery.

Surgery was not however his only skill – he was endowed with an enviable array of talents which would have enabled him to succeed in any career of his choice. In his youth, he was an accomplished violinist and had contemplated music as a profession. He stayed with surgery because, he was wont to remark, a surgeon could enjoy music, but a musician could hardly undertake surgery as a hobby. As a medical student he still found time to play cricket for Surrey second XI and on a memorable occasion scored a double century at the Oval while working for the primary. Golf came easily to him, chess was a fascinating contest, but bridge was a more serious business, which brought him into contact with both sides of the political divide. In retirement, he took up painting with his customary success, maintaining at the same time his expertise in numismatics and opera. In all these fields he was driven by the urge to excel and, although in public his ambition was decently cloaked, it was never entirely concealed.

His father, Edwin Smith, was a south London coroner, his mother, Edith Catherine née Dyer, a professional violinist, and it is hardly surprising therefore that medicine and music engaged his early interests. After schooling at Westminster, which he left early after a row with the headmaster, Dr Costley-White, about an intended performance at the Chelsea Music Festival, he crossed the river to St Thomas’s for his medical training, conceiving there an admiration for Philip Mitchiner, a forthright and plain spoken surgeon whose earthy sense of humour was to provide an endless source of anecdotes for later after dinner speeches.

Rodney qualified in 1937, but the sudden death of his father precluded him from taking the unpaid resident posts at St Thomas’s to which his student achievements would have entitled him. After a spell of general practice in Wimbledon, he passed his FRCS examination and in 1939 was appointed surgical registrar at the Middlesex Hospital, then staffed by an outstanding group of general surgeons. Senior amongst these was Sir Alfred, later Lord, Webb Johnson, shortly to become the long-serving President of the College and chief architect of our post-war reconstruction. It was Webb Johnson who first impressed upon Rodney the importance of the College to the profession and the prestige which attached to those who attained high office in it. Thereafter the College was to be the focus of his ambitions and a determination to fit himself for its service was to be the mainspring of his working life.

In the meantime, war provided for him, as for so many surgeons, invaluable opportunities. He joined the RAMC in 1941 and with both the MS and FRCS was recognised as a surgical specialist. He served in North Africa, Yugoslavia and Italy, being wounded at Anzio. War surgery gave him the necessary practical experience required for the development of technical excellence in the operating theatre and shortly after demobilisation, in 1946, he was appointed as consultant surgeon to St George’s Hospital. Rodney Smith made it the most famous centre in Britain for the treatment of major biliary and pancreatic disorders, with a reputation which rivalled that of his friend Cattell in Boston.

He was a prolific author, writing books and contributing to surgical journals, and was a hard working editor of multi-volume standard texts. His Operative surgery (London, Butterworths, 1960), which ran to many editions, written and edited in co-operation with Charles Rob of St Mary’s, was particularly successful. His popularity as a lecturer brought him many invitations to centres abroad. A spell as a visiting professor in Sydney gained him an honorary Fellowship in the Royal Australasian College, the first of many such honours.

The busy life of travel and practice left him little time to devote to his own medical school, but it did not divert him from the Royal College of Surgeons, which he was determined to serve, first in the humble, later in the most prestigious capacity. He gained the Jacksonian prize in 1951, he delivered Hunterian Professorial lectures in 1947 and 1952. In 1957, he took the post of Penrose May tutor and successfully organised clinical surgery courses for postgraduates. In 1962, he was appointed to the Court of Examiners and in 1965 was elected to the Council. In the following year, he became Dean of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, an enterprise run jointly by the College and the University of London and in need of revitalising. He proved to be popular with both the staff and students, and the Institute thrived under his administration. There could never be any doubt that he would become President, but due to the death in office in 1973 of Edward Muir, he achieved that position earlier than expected.

Rodney Smith came to the presidency fully prepared: he combined management skills with a proper regard for the ceremonial and had an agreeable affability on social occasions. He could of course be a hard task-master and intolerant of weakness or failure, but his zeal in the promotion of the high status of the College, paralleling his own ambitions, was unfaltering. His influence on the profession was far reaching, he had a wide circle of acquaintances, but few friends. His position and his acknowledged technical prowess brought him numerous invitations to be guest professor or eponymous lecturer, he received gold medals and no less than nine honorary fellowships, all of which he received with aplomb.

In 1975, he was awarded the KBE and was clearly marked out for a role in national affairs, meanwhile the state of the NHS was causing a crisis of morale in the profession. Barbara Castle, Minister of Health in the incoming Labour government, was determined to create a whole-time salaried hospital service, eliminating private beds in NHS hospitals, which Bevan had allowed in 1948 to secure the co-operation of the consultants. The matter came to a head with a strike by hospital domestic staff unions, aimed at ousting private practice from the NHS, and the BMA reacted by calling for a work to rule by consultants. This was a strategy the College could not condone, even though its objectives were agreed. Overt political action was of course ruled out by the College’s charitable status and direct opposition to the BMA would clearly not unite the profession. Rodney Smith effectively used his diplomatic skills to help resolve the impasse, and emerged with great credit and with his leadership of the profession recognised by both government and opposition.

Rodney Smith married Mary Rodwell in 1938 and they had four children – Martin, Andrew, Elinor and Robert. He divorced in 1971 and married Susan Fry in the same year. There are six grandchildren. He died on 1 July 1998 at the age of 84.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 22 July 1998, with portrait; The Independent 28 July 1998, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England