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Biographical entry Urquhart, David Ronald Petersgarth (1920 - 2008)

MRCS 1942; FRCS 1948; MB BS London 1942; LRCP 1942.

15 January 1920
London, UK
6 April 2008
Orthopaedic surgeon


Known affectionately as ‘Dru’, David Ronald Petersgarth Urquhart was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, from 1957 until 1981. Although in many ways a private person, he was undoubtedly one of the established St Thomas’ personalities in the post-war era. His skills were in student teaching and administration, having been heavily involved in the hospital re-building programme. He is remembered at St Thomas’ for his modesty, bubbly sense of humour and approachability.

Dru was born in London on 15 January 1920 to Anne Urquhart (née Addis). His father, Alexander Lewis Urquhart, was a pathologist at St Thomas’. He attended Grenham House School, Birchington, Kent, and then Epsom College, from which he entered St Thomas’ Hospital medical school in 1937, qualifying in 1942. As a clinical student in the hospital at the time of the Blitz, he narrowly escaped the direct hit on the northern three blocks of the hospital.

After house jobs, he was commissioned into the RAMC in 1943 and posted to HQ 5th Parachute Brigade, 6th Airborne Division. On 8 June 1944 the brigade was parachuted into Normandy to reinforce those who were holding the famous Pegasus (Bénonville) bridge against the Germans. The brigade experienced fierce fighting, during which Dru strayed into no-man’s land against orders to attend the wounded and sustained serious wounds from small arms fire, becoming one of the 4,500 casualties from the 6th Airborne Division in that period.

Following repatriation and recovery, he returned to action in December 1944 to take part in the crossing of the Rhine in early 1945 with 225 (parachute) Field Ambulance, having attained the rank of major at the age of only 25. He was subsequently posted to 7th Battalion, the unit preparing to displace the Japanese from occupied Singapore with the expectancy that no one would be likely to survive this daunting task. He was in fact saved by the Japanese surrender following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Years later in the St Thomas’ theatre coffee room he was challenged by some registrars discussing the ethics of nuclear warfare. In his modest way he commented that he had a biased opinion over the question of whether the Hiroshima bombing should have occurred. His firm view was that it should have happened. We now know why he felt that way.

In 1947 Dru returned to surgical postgraduate training and at this time met his future wife Verity Hehir at the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge. Verity was the adopted daughter of Sir Patrick Hehir, a physician in the Indian Medical Service and an authority on tropical medicine who had distinguished himself in the First World War. In 1948 Dru achieved his FRCS and also married Verity. In that same year he renewed his association with the Parachute Regiment by joining 4 Parachute Brigade, Field Ambulance TA, later to become their commanding officer in 1955.

His surgical training led to specialisation in orthopaedics. In 1955 he was made senior registrar to St Thomas’ orthopaedics department. In 1957 he was appointed consultant in that department, aged 37. Of the many influences that had encouraged him in his training he cited George Perkins, the then professor of general surgery at St Thomas’, whose practice was almost entirely in trauma and orthopaedics, and also B H Burns and R H ‘Bob’ Young, who had published pivotal papers on lumbar disc herniation in The Lancet. They were both on the orthopaedic staff of St George’s and St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey.
As a young consultant Dru made, as his priority from the start, a commitment to serve his patients, for which he set a good example, leaving others to grapple with the politics of the new NHS. He enjoyed his links with medical students, using his unhurried Friday afternoon ward rounds for bedside teaching in his personal, jovial manner. He preferred this quieter form of teaching to the large outpatient teaching clinics – often quite a jamboree – led by his senior colleagues Ronnie Furlong and Alan Apley (from the Rowley Bristow Orthopaedic Hospital, Pyrford). Dru did not pursue academic orthopaedics for its own sake and his contributions to the medical literature were sparse. However, he acquired expertise in the management of the orthopaedic sequelae of haemophilia and he became an acknowledged leader in this field. Dru was head of the orthopaedic department at St Thomas’ from 1979 until his retirement in 1981.

Dru Urquhart had considerable administrative ability and he was appointed governor to the hospital in the early 1960s. He found his métier when he took up the leadership of the St Thomas’ rebuilding project at a time when Government funding for London hospitals was under threat due to policies favouring peripheral hospital development. Despite this, the new east wing was completed in 1965 and the north wing in 1973, a considerable achievement. Dru subsequently became chairman of the medical and surgical officers committee.

Dru was very much a family man, living in the Surrey hills near Godalming. He and Verity had two daughters – Ann and Catriona. In 1972, with the growing pressure of his hospital commitments, he and Verity took an apartment in Lollards Tower of Lambeth Palace, only a short distance from St Thomas’ and also useful for Verity, who had developed a skilful interest in jewellery design and making. However, they escaped to the country at weekends.

After retirement, the Lollards flat became their main residence, where they indulged in their love of art and music. The sale of two painting enabled them to make an extensive grand opera tour. However, for part of the year, Dru and Verity regularly stayed with their daughter Ann, by then an established architect, who owns a property in the Cevennes area of southern France. Here they enjoyed walking, gardening, reading, baking bread and brewing beer. In the late 1990s Dru sadly developed cerebral decline, leading to dementia. He died on 6 April 2008, having donated his body to the Alzheimer’s Society for research. He was survived by Verity, who continued to live independently in London, and by his two daughters. Ann, the architect, continues to live in France, and Catriona, now married, was in her younger days a distinguished horsewoman at a national standard in eventing. There are no grandchildren.

Michael Edgar

The Royal College of Surgeons of England