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Biographical entry Auden, Rita Romola (1942 - 2008)

BM BCh Oxford 1967, FRCS 1972

22 August 1942
Simla, India
3 January 2008
General surgeon


Rita Auden was a surgeon at the London Hospital, until mental illness forced her to abandon her career. She was born in Simla, India, on 22 August 1942. Her father, John Bicknell Auden, was a geologist with the Geological Survey of India, and the last European to be appointed to the permanent cadre of the Survey. His brother, Wystan, was the poet W H Auden. Her paternal grandfather was George Augustus Auden, a physician who became the first school medical officer in Birmingham and professor of public health at Birmingham University. He liked to quote an aphorism that a doctor should “care more for the individual patient than for the special features of his disease” and that “healing is not a science but an intuitive art of wooing nature”, ideas which influenced his family, including Rita.

Rita’s mother was the painter Sheila Bonnerjee. She trained at the Oriental School of Art in Calcutta and the Central School of Art in London, and had various exhibitions in Calcutta and Bombay. Some of her work was exhibited in Paris. Her father, R C Bonnerjee, had read Greats at Balliol and then practised as a barrister in Calcutta. Sheila’s grandfather was W C Bonnerjee, a leading Indian barrister at the Calcutta High Court and the first president of the Indian National Congress.

Calcutta in the 1940s was an interesting and cosmopolitan place, and Rita’s parents had a wide circle of friends, including journalists, artists, diplomats and businessmen. The Auden family lived in a flat in Lansdowne Road with Sheila Bonnerjee’s sister Minnie and her husband Lindsay Emmerson. Summer holidays were occasionally spent in Darjeeling at Point Clear, a house on the Jalaphar Road which belonged to an aunt. The children were sometimes taken to festivals by their bearer, ‘Mouse’, where the brightly painted statues garlanded with flowers would be carried to the Hooghly river and then left to float away.

In 1951 the girls left India to be educated in England, travelling via the island of Ischia, where they stayed with their uncle Wystan. They initially went to school at the Convent of the Holy Child of Jesus in Edgbaston, Birmingham, near their grandfather George Augustus Auden, who lived in Repton. Later, when their mother settled in London, they went to More House, a Catholic day school, initially in South Kensington. Rita then went to Cambridge to do science A levels, as More House did not offer science teaching. Influenced perhaps by memories of the poverty and disease of Calcutta, she decided to choose medicine as a career, going to St Anne’s in Oxford in 1959 and then the London Hospital Medical College. There she stood out for her striking beauty and daunting intelligence, winning praises from all her chiefs and gaining the Andrew Clark prize in clinical medicine.

After qualifying, she became house physician to Lawson McDonald and Wallace Brigden and then house surgeon to Clive Butler and Alan Parks, who all found her outstanding. She went on to win the Hallett prize for the primary FRCS. She was senior house officer in casualty in 1969, and then spent two years doing research with Charles Mann, before returning to the surgical unit. During this time she took study leave at the Mayo Clinic and spent a year in Belfast, where she gained experience with gun-shot injuries, and a year in Vietnam, seeking always to meet fresh challenges in the most dangerous and difficult situations. It was the same when she took a vacation: she thought nothing of spending a month going down the Amazon accompanied only by tribesmen.

She returned to the London as a clinical assistant on the surgical unit in 1974 under David Ritchie, one of a group of exceptional young people, four of whom had been Hallett prize winners. There she showed herself to be an excellent organiser, a competent operator and a kind and caring doctor. When the time came for her to enter for an appointment as senior registrar to J E (Sam) Richardson in 1976, it was agreed that she was the outstanding candidate even though her appointment was vehemently opposed by the senior surgeon. Within a year however he had completely changed his opinion, saying she was the best senior registrar he had ever had. Indeed, so strongly did he advocate her further promotion that at his retirement dinner in 1981 he announced that Rita was to be appointed as a consultant. This was strongly opposed by some within the department. In the event she was appointed as a senior lecturer on the surgical unit, with consultant status.

In 1984 she became ill and had a breakdown. At first Rita declined the offer of expert help, but within a few weeks she was sectioned and treated as an inpatient. After some three months it was thought she was fit to return to work, but unfortunately soon after her return she deteriorated again and had to be readmitted to a psychiatric unit. She resigned in 1987.

She led a full life after her retirement. Until their deaths, she lived with her parents in Thurloe Square and her medical skills and instinct for care meant that neither had to go into a home, despite ill health. She also cared for and supported her wider family and friends, including her sister Anita, her nephew Otto and her aunt Anila Graham, who suffered a series of strokes. She would visit people in hospital even if this meant travelling up to Yorkshire. She was extremely interested in and concerned about the people around her, and would recount stories about her 90 year old neighbour who still drove a car and spent holidays in France, her Italian hairdresser, her Polish cleaner, and the regulars she would chat to in the local coffee shop. Her observations made them all the more human.

While still an undergraduate she had met Peter Mudford, an English scholar at Christ Church who later lectured in English and European literature at Birkbeck College, London, eventually becoming a professor emeritus. They married in 1965 and divorced in 1985, though they kept very much in touch until her death.

Because of her family and educational background her interests ranged widely. She used to play the piano and listen to music. She liked gardens and used to go to talks at the British Museum. She also regularly did crosswords and had a penchant for detective stories, tastes shared by her mother and her uncle Wystan.

She died on 3 January 2008. Her family and friends will miss the special quality of her presence and her sense of humour and her sensitivity to the quirks and oddities of life.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Sources used to compile this entry: The Daily Telegraph 28 January 2008; ‘George Augustus Auden’ Lancet 1957 272 999; Auden R R (1978) ‘A Hunterian Pupil. Sir William Blizard and the London Hospital’ Ann.Roy.Coll.Surg.Eng 60:345-9; information from Anita Money, Peter Mudford].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England