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Biographical entry Smellie, William Alastair Buchanan (1933 - 2010)

MRCS and FRCS 1962; BA Cambridge 1954; MB BChir 1957; MChir 1965.

17 May 1933
Woking, Surrey, UK
24 March 2010
General surgeon


Alastair Smellie was a much respected consultant general surgeon to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, with breast and endocrine specialist interests, a lecturer at the university and for many years a senior examiner for final MB BChir examinations.

He was born on 17 May 1933 in Woking, Surrey, into a family with a long medical tradition. His father, William Buchanan Smellie, was a general practitioner-surgeon. His mother, Marie Louise Stephens, was the daughter of William Edgar Stephens, a solicitor. The medical ‘genes’ can be traced back to William Smellie (1697-1763), the well-known master of midwifery who flourished in London in the heyday of the Hunters, became a leading teacher and obstetrician, and whose name is associated with wooden forceps, later covered with leather. The continuous line of medical practitioners in the family is continued today by William James Buchanan Smellie, a consultant surgeon at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

Alastair was educated first at Allen House preparatory school in Woking and then at Wellington College, where he boxed for the school and became house captain. He then went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and on to St Thomas’ Hospital for his clinical studies. There he met Anne Fraser-Stephen, a medical student whom he married five years later. They were devoted to each other for the whole of their 50 years of marriage. Anne was the daughter of Lindley Fraser and granddaughter of Ridley MacKenzie, a doctor.

Alastair qualified in 1957 and, after house appointments, entered the RAMC for National Service with the Grenadier Guards from 1960 to 1962, as a captain and surgical specialist. He was posted to the Cameroons, where he found goitre to be endemic. In his spare time he perfected what was to become one of his trademark operations, thyroidectomy. A staff sergeant administered ether for anaesthesia, a fact that Alastair frequently pointed out to anaesthetists in future years. He maintained his interest in the military, becoming an honorary colonel in the Territorial Army from 1985 to 1990.

He returned to St Thomas’ as an anatomy demonstrator, and was then appointed to the busy post of resident assistant surgeon, remaining at St Thomas’, apart from a senior house officer post at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and Hammersmith Hospital, and a year in research into organ transplantation at the Medical College of Virginia, which became the subject of his MChir thesis. During his year in America he became friendly with Tommy Johns, an American surgeon, who adopted the Smellie family. Alastair was able to show at a later date a similar generous friendship to young doctors in training under his supervision.

He was then appointed as a senior lecturer in surgery to the University of Cambridge under Sir Roy Calne. From this post he moved to his definitive appointment as general surgeon to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, a position he held for 30 years, endocrine and breast surgery being his preferred specialties. During this period, Cambridge medicine saw huge changes with the building of the large new hospital, the foundation of the clinical medical school and an explosion in research. Alastair Smellie played a key role in Cambridge surgical education from medical students to senior trainees, and was responsible for guiding the paths of many present day UK consultants.

He was made a member of the Travelling Surgical Club of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1974 and after two years of membership became honorary secretary and treasurer. Alastair was the fifth St Thomas’ graduate to occupy this onerous post, in the steps of William Wagstaffe of Oxford – the guiding force when Lord Moynihan was its’ first president – Philip Mitchiner, Sir Clement Price Thomas, Bob Nevin and Adrian Marston, who handed the baton to Alastair. With Anne at his side, Alastair proved to be very efficient and over the next six years organised many successful meetings at home and abroad.

In our College, he was on the Court of Examiners and a regional adviser from 1971 to 1979. At Cambridge he served on the examination committee of the master of surgery and for many years organised the surgical component of the MB BChir. Invited examiners were able to enjoy the ‘Smellie’ hospitality the night before the vivas. On one occasion the snow fell heavily, and during the evening meal complimented with wines from Alastair’s cellar, frequent calls came from students who said they would never make the examination the next day. Alistair’s answer was brief: “Start walking now!”

Above all, Alastair is remembered for his clinical work. He was a superb diagnostician and operator. He was very supportive of all hospital activities and will be remembered by those who knew him well for his unstinting support when they found themselves in difficulty. He published widely in general, vascular and the transplantation fields, was on the editorial board of the British Journal of Surgery and edited Cambridge lectures in surgery (Chapman and Hall, 1981).

He had many interests outside medicine. He loved the Barbizon school of art and collected it wisely, just as he did fine porcelain and wine. His love of people and conversation, coupled with a marvellous sense of humour, made him an ideal companion at any scientific meeting or social event. A natural tennis player, he played against colleagues in Oxford most years.

Taught to shoot by his father, Alastair loved the countryside, shooting pheasant in the Fens and grouse in Scotland. He was a keen fisherman who loved the serenity of the river banks in Norfolk and Scotland. For 28 years, he took a house on the Boreland estate in Scotland, where friends and their children enjoyed his hospitality and shot their first grouse and deer or caught their first salmon under his guidance. He served as chief medical officer at point-to-points in East Anglia, supported the hunts and withstood the cold weather when treating injured riders, although he was not a horseman himself.

After the inaugural university tobogganing race, Alastair tried the sport himself at the age of 51, became addicted and for the next 15 years Alastair led parties of family and friends to St Moritz. He was on the board of governors of Radley and Uppingham schools.

Alastair Smellie died suddenly but peacefully on 24 March 2010, and was survived by Anne, their daughter Claire (a teacher), James (a general surgeon) and Thomas (a financial consultant), and eight grandchildren.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Anne Smellie and James Smellie].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England