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Biographical entry Owen-Smith, Bertram (1922 - 2008)

MB BS London 1950; MRCS LRCP 1950; FRCS 1955.

12 April 1922
6 June 2008
Plastic surgeon and Politician


Bertram Owen-Smith, or 'Owen' as he was known, was a plastic surgeon in the UK and later in Salisbury, Rhodesia. A member of the 'Guinea Pig Club', the group of injured Second World War airmen treated by the pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, he made the unusual transition from patient to doctor; he studied medicine at King's College and then Westminster Hospital and later trained with McIndoe.

He was born Bertram Owen Smith in Liverpool on 12 April 1922, one of the four children of an officer in Customs and Excise. When he was still a child the family returned to their home city, Swansea, and he attended Swansea Grammar School. He was primarily interested in sports, particularly rugby, left school at 17 and found a job in an insurance company. The Second World War broke out soon afterwards, the centre of Swansea was heavily bombed and so Owen moved to the short-staffed ambulance service.

At the age of 18, he joined the RAF. He was sent to Canada for pilot training and was commissioned in April 1941. On 16 October 1941 he was piloting a Whitley V plane on a training sortie when one of the two engines failed just after take-off. He managed to land in a field, but the aircraft burst into flames. Owen, his co-pilot and the navigator were badly burned. He spent nearly two years as a patient at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex, where he was operated on by McIndoe, who was developing new techniques in facial reconstruction and plastic surgery.

Smith became fascinated by McIndoe's work, decided to become a doctor and studied from his hospital bed. Meanwhile, in March 1943, he returned to duty. He completed a refresher course, but due to his injuries he was unable to resume operational flying. In November 1944 he resigned from the RAF with the rank of flight lieutenant.

He went on to study medicine at King's College, London, and Westminster Hospital Medical School. He subsequently worked in hospitals in Bristol and Newcastle, and at the Royal Marsden Hospital. While at the Royal Marsden he asked to return to East Grinstead to learn the basics of plastic surgery, with the aim of helping his patients who needed radical surgery for cancer. In the event he stayed for three years and trained under McIndoe.

In 1957 he emigrated to Salisbury, Rhodesia. Here he changed his name by deed poll and officially became 'Owen-Smith'. He treated burns victims, patients with skin cancer, children with cleft palates and victims of the guerilla war.

In 1964, unhappy with a project to develop a new teaching hospital in Salisbury, he stood for election to the Rhodesian Parliament and was elected as an MP. He was one of Prime Minister Ian Smith's backbenchers when UDI (the unilateral declaration of independence) was announced in November 1965.

In 1982 he returned to Britain and settled in Pentregat, Dyfed.

In 1943 he married Rickie Pritchard. They divorced in 1967 and later that year he married Bobbie Mitchell, the chief nurse in his practice. Bobbie died in 2005. Bertram Owen-Smith died on 6 June 2008, aged 86. He was survived by his four sons and daughter by his first marriage.

Brian Morgan

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Telegraph 25 July 2008 - accessed 5 August 2015; Liverpool Daily Post 29 July 2008].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England