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Biographical entry Hartley, Charles Edwin (1922 - 2009)

MRCS 1949; FRCS 1951; MB BChir Cambridge 1944; DTM&H 1951.

22 January 1922
Newcastle, Staffordshire, UK
6 October 2009
General surgeon and missionary


Charles Hartley served much of his professional life as a missionary and surgeon at Vom Christian Hospital, Nigeria. He later entered general practice in Falmouth. He was born in Newcastle, Staffordshire, on 22 January 1922. His father was Harold Hartley, a senior consulting surgeon at North Staffordshire Hospital, who had won a gold medal for his London MD in 1902. His mother was Janet Stuart née Laird, the second woman to gain the FRCS Edinburgh with the gold medal. Together with Elsie Inglis of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, she went to Serbia, to provide medical services for the White Russians. His mother died when Charles was 13, and he recalled being told by his housemaster “not to cry, as it was selfish”.

His two older brothers went to Eton, but when it was time for young Charles to be educated, his father’s finances were somewhat constrained. He was educated first at Summer Field School, Oxford, and then went to Epsom College (from 1934 to 1939), where he was encouraged to enter medicine. As a rather shy bespectacled schoolboy, he had a good academic record before going to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, to study natural sciences in a foreshortened two year course. From 1939 to 1941, he captained the Peterhouse tennis team and was the only medical student in his year. In his first few days as an undergraduate he received an invitation to attend a ‘fresher’s squash’, a meeting for newcomers aimed at giving a Christian message. The speaker was ‘Jim’ (Charles Gordon) Scorer, a Cambridge graduate from Emmanuel College, who gave an evangelical talk that impressed at least one young undergraduate. Charles was also influenced in his early spiritual journey by a contemporary at Peterhouse, John Swinbank, later chaplain to Bradfield College.

Charles went to St Bartholomew’s Hospital for his clinical training, but, because of the war, spent only three months in Smithfield, with much of his clinical training taking place at Hill End Hospital, St Albans and later at Friern Hospital. In his first year Charles Hartley lodged in St Albans and was provided with full board and lodging for performing regular Air Raid Precaution (ARP) duties. In the second year, he was billeted in Hill End Hospital, much liked by students, nurses and resident doctors because of the friendly and informal atmosphere, not apparent in Smithfield. The rather gloomy atmosphere at Friern Barnet in his final year was offset by excellent ‘digs’, run by a Miss Pepper, a staunch Congregationalist. She encouraged the students to attend the local church, run by one of the first female ministers in the UK, the Reverend Elsie Chamberlain, who was married to the local Anglican priest. Charles won the Brackenbury prize in surgery, the Matthews Duncan prize and gold medal in midwifery and gynaecology and the Walsham prize in surgical pathology. He was house surgeon to (Sir) James Paterson Ross and John Hosford at a time when Reggie Murley became chief assistant. He then became chief assistant in neurosurgery to John O’Connell and passed the primary FRCS.

In 1947 Charles Hartley entered the RAMC as a surgical specialist in Graz and on trains from Trieste to the Hook of Holland. Towards the end of his National Service, he developed jaundice and was admitted to hospital for several weeks.

Once he was demobilised, Charles felt he should go abroad as a missionary. As part of his training, he took a crash correspondence course with the London Bible College, did surgical locums and ironed out gaps in his knowledge, passed the final FRCS at the third attempt and the DTM&H after a course in tropical medicine.

The Sudan United Missionary Society desperately needed a surgeon in northern Nigeria, and Charles set sail for Lagos in 1953. The Vom Hospital stood on a 4,000 foot high plateau. The work at this newly built hospital was demanding. On operating days he worked from dawn to dusk: caesarean sections were common emergencies, and he became adept at treating patients with vesicovaginal fistula. In quieter moments he explored the countryside, indulged in bird watching and added to his carefully annotated researches on the history of art. Despite poor health, he was determined to explore Africa and made the long journey to Lake Chad and then back along the river Benue. He left the mission field in 1966, after some 15 years of service. After extensive investigations at Bart’s, he was found to have contracted a rare form of leprosy. After treatment, he was left with a weak leg and decided to give up surgery.

He became a GP in Falmouth. Charles loved the work as it brought new challenges. He retired from general practice reluctantly at the age of 60, but continued to work for the National Blood Transfusion Service across Cornwall until 1992, when he reached 70. He enjoyed golf and was an active member of the Falmouth Baptist church.

He first met Ruth E A Doble, a nurse at Bart’s, in the sluice room of the operating theatre at Hill End Hospital. They married in February 1947, and had two daughters, Jane Deborah, born in 1948, who became a teacher, and Philippa Ruth, born in 1950, who became a solicitor. One of Charles’ hobbies during his time as a GP was collecting old Bibles. His was the second largest private collection and included first edition authorised versions and a psalter that had belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. When his daughter Philippa sadly died of breast cancer in 2004, he lost heart for collecting and sold his collection at Sotherby’s for £250,000, with which he established the Bible Heritage Trust, a charity supporting Christian missions at home and abroad.

Charles Hartley died on 6 October 2009, after four weeks of increasing weakness, but remained mentally alert to the last. He was survived by his daughter Jane, her husband, their three surviving children (Anna Grace, John Melville and Esther Ivy) and Philippa’s two children, Jonathan Hugh and Naomi Ruth.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Jane Richards].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England