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Biographical entry Howat, Douglas Donald Currie (1920 - 2006)

FRCS 1984; MB BS London 1943; DA 1946; FRCA 1953.

10 January 1920
Denholm, Roxburghshire, UK
15 November 2006


Douglas Donald Currie Howat was a consultant anaesthetist at St George’s Hospital, London. He was born on 10 January 1920, in Denholm in Roxburghshire on the Scottish borders. His grandfather ran a muslin factory in Glasgow, but his father, Reginald Douglas Howat, preferred the life of a country gentleman and had become a general practitioner. His mother, Christine Evelyn née Ireland, came from a long line of Church of Scotland ministers. His father soon left Scotland for Bradford, where he was an assistant medical officer of health. When Douglas was six years old the family moved to London, and, at the age of eight, he gained a scholarship to Dulwich College. An only child, Douglas’ childhood was, by his own admission, lonely, but rather than dwelling on his solitude, he developed considerable self-sufficiency, exploring London on long cycle rides and reading voraciously. He greatly enjoyed being sent to Scotland for his holidays.

At the age of 16 he was expected to choose a profession. He thought of becoming a barrister, but his father claimed he could not afford this and suggested he do medicine, as he knew the dean of St George’s Medical School who would accept him. Douglas switched to science and took his first MB from school, won a scholarship, and was accepted by King’s College to study medicine.

At King’s, he met Joan Overstall, then secretary to the University Conservative Society. She was from Lancashire, reading French, Italian and law. They kept in touch during his clinical years at St George's Hospital and in 1943, after Douglas qualified, they married.

After he qualified, he had a short flirtation with medicine and gained the MRCP, but changed to surgery. He completed a resident surgical officer post in Slough, before accepting an anaesthetist post at St George’s, having enjoyed his student experience in this field under the inspiration of Joseph Blomfield, who was noted for supervising his students administering ether whilst holding a cup of tea and a cigarette in his hands. Douglas passed the diploma in anaesthetics, was called up into the RAF and served at Cosford, being demobilized in 1948. By this time his three children had been born, Catherine (1944), David (1946) and Michael (1947). Joan always fully shared in Douglas’ professional life.

Douglas continued his anaesthetic training at St George’s, working half his time at the Brompton Hospital with anaesthetists Ruth Mansfield and Bernard Lucas and surgeons Brock, Cleland, Price Thomas, Barrett and Tubbs. He was appointed as a consultant anaesthetist in Nottingham in a tuberculosis unit, but did not settle there and soon returned to London, to a post where he worked at Woolwich, Lewisham and Maidstone, until appointed to St George’s, where he started cardiac anaesthesia, working with Charles Drew. Later he worked extensively with Rodney (later Lord) Smith in pancreatico-biliary surgery.

Meanwhile, Douglas was extending his horizons, attending the Royal Society of Medicine regularly, and he started travelling overseas, reading papers at the Second World Congress of Societies of Anaesthesiologists in Toronto and visiting hospitals and lecturing in Europe and USA. At home he served as vice-dean at St George’s and chaired the regional postgraduate advisory committee and became examiner for the fellowship at the Faculty of Anaesthetists. In 1965 he took on the highly responsible task of organising secretary for the Fourth World Congress of Societies of Anaesthesiologists, held in 1968 in London.

Douglas subsequently held office in all the important anaesthetic organisations in the UK. He was president of the section of anaesthetics of the Royal Society of Medicine (from 1976 to 1977) and its international affairs secretary. In the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland he was honorary treasurer (from 1969 to 1974), vice-president (1974 to 1976) and an honorary member (1986). He became regional adviser to the Faculty of Anaesthetists, served on the board of the Faculty of Anaesthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons, becoming vice-dean, quietly revolutionising this rather vaguely defined post. His contribution to the College was noted by his being elected FRCS in 1984. In 1979 he delivered the biennial Frederic Hewitt memorial lecture.

Douglas became extensively involved in international affairs. Not only his linguistic skill but even more his wise counsel was immensely valuable. He had an ability to establish rapport with all sorts of people and where diplomacy was needed, he was asked to go. From 1976 to 1980 he was consecutively chairman of the executive committee of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiology and its vice-president, but it is as a European figure that he is best known. As early as 1966 he was, with members of the Royal College of Physicians, one of the UK representatives considering the implications of Britain joining the European Economic Community. When Britain eventually joined in 1973 he continued to represent British anaesthesia on the council of the European Union of Medical Specialists and chaired its anaesthetic monospecialist committee. He was involved with the foundation of the European Academy of Anaesthesia that notably strengthened the links with our overseas colleagues and established anaesthesia as a major specialty in countries where this had not before been the case.

Douglas’ childhood interests continued throughout his life. He was always a great reader, though long solitary walks in the Chilterns succeeded long cycle rides in London and these he meticulously recorded in a diary. The Times crossword, chess, history of anaesthesia and the music of Beethoven were added.

In 1984 Douglas retired from St George’s and this gave him more time to pursue his interest in the history of medicine. A steady stream of small research projects were reported at professional meetings, always in an entertaining way. He was president of the History of Anaesthesia Society during 1993.

Douglas died on 15 November 2006, following gall-bladder surgery, a year and nine months after Joan. He had achieved much. He worked in an unobtrusive yet effective way, never losing his sense of humour, however provoked. He was just as happy carrying out the mundane chores as the most prestigious ones, indeed he said he enjoyed being given a job to do, but not becoming a figurehead. Although a national and international figure, he never forgot that the prime responsibility of a clinician is to serve his patients with skill and knowledge, and to support his surgeons and his trainees in all their endeavours.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Aileen K Adam; History of the RCS Council Club 2001 p.191].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England