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Biographical entry Houghton, Paul Winchester (1911 - 2009)

MB BS London 1935; MRCS LRCP 1935; FRCS 1939.

30 September 1911
London, UK
5 August 2009
General surgeon


Paul Winchester Houghton was a general surgeon in Worcester, and served with distinction in the Second World War. He was born in west London into a naval family on 30 September 1911 and was educated at Whitgift School. Until his last days he could remember the hunger caused by rationing during the First World War, and his uncle Herbert returning from the Western front. He recalled: 'My mother stood him on a big white sheet in the living room, for he was covered in mud from head to foot.'

He entered St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School and qualified MB BS in 1935. His first surgical training post was at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, where he sustained a burn to his finger while aiming a firework at the matron's window. In 1938 he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, after his father warned him: 'here we go again'. He worked in a naval hospital at Lowestoft before, in 1940, joining the destroyer HMS Zulu, in which he took part in Atlantic convoys. 'I was rowed out to the ship and climbed the vertical steel ladder to salute the quarterdeck. You never forget the thrill of joining a warship getting up steam to head out into the Atlantic.'

During his wartime service he treated everything from tuberculosis to missing limbs, head injuries, flash burns, splinter wounds and survivors of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, who had skinned themselves while sliding down her barnacled hull as she rolled over. It was difficult for Houghton to treat the wounded in the small Zulu, and often he could only provide palliative care. Even in the battleship HMS Nelson, which he joined as a surgical specialist in 1941, Houghton was appalled to find long knives, saws and tarred string for tying off blood vessels, all in a brassbound box, apparently as issued in the days of Nelson himself. He promptly wrote directly to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, asking for modern instruments. This earned him a reprimand for not using official channels, but soon so much equipment arrived he was able to share it with other ships.

On 27 September 1941, HMS Nelson, the flagship of the Malta convoys, was torpedoed and Houghton found himself trapped below decks. 'In the darkness I walked forward to feel if the watertight bulkhead was holding. After an hour I made the same journey; but this time I was walking back up a steep hill. Sometime later we heard a dreadful roaring over our heads. Then we heard the watertight door being opened for the wonderful release of daylight. We discovered the noise was my friend Commander Blundell at work. He saved the ship by organising the crew to winch and drag the enormous anchor chain from the front to the rear of the ship. This change of weights raised the bows until the torpedo hole was out of the water.'

In autumn 1942, while HMS Nelson was in the Mediterranean, Rear Admiral Philip Vian, one of the war's most distinguished fighting admirals, consulted Houghton in secret. Vian was clearly ill and had been relieved of command of Force A, based at Port Said. Examination revealed a large infected scalp sebaceous cyst concealed by matted hair, which in Houghton's opinion was life threatening. Houghton operated successfully, the episode was kept confidential, and Vian made a complete recovery, going on to command part of the invasion fleet on D Day.

In January 1943, when the Nelson was the flagship of Force H, the South African-born Vice Admiral Neville Syfret consulted the ship's surgical specialist after four days of abdominal pain. Houghton found him acutely ill with appendicitis and operated at once. Afterwards, while waiting for him to recover, he and a colleague were playfully trying on the admiral's hat. A sudden roar from the patient('take that bloody thing off') put an end to their games. 'No hopes of a medal for me,' Houghton predicted.

After the war Houghton took a surgical job in Shrewsbury, where he met and treated his future wife of 62 years when she cut her finger on the anchor chain of a captured German yacht. He was then appointed as a consultant general surgeon in Worcester, working at Ronkswood Hospital. On retiring at the compulsory age of 65 (in 1976), he continued as a locum in Worcester and then elsewhere in South Africa, St Lucia and the UK. His last post, at the age of 75, was at the Nazareth Hospital, Israel. As usual for his generation, he had a very wide surgical practice, including initially orthopaedics.

A man of enormous personal integrity, he always kept his patients fully informed of their prognosis, but his watchword was 'never destroy hope'. Houghton was the antithesis of the clubbable man, despising 'shallow affability'. Yet he enjoyed good dinners and had a wide range of personal friends who appreciated his many stories and his vast store of memorised verse. His whimsical sense of humour was famous, but did not conceal his compassion. He was sustained throughout his life by a steadfast Christian faith, and began every operation with a quiet prayer, said without ostentation and not usually noticed by others. As ill health took its toll towards the end of this long life, he longed in his own words for 'the land of heaven'. He died at home from heart failure on 5 August 2009, at the age of 97, and was survived by his wife Jean, daughter Pippa, a theatre nurse, son Mark, a GP, and his three grandchildren - Celia, Daniel and Fiona.

In 1995 a meeting was held in Worcester to mark the passing of 50 years since the end of the Second World War. Paul Houghton spoke of his wartime experiences. He showed a black and white photograph that he had taken from HMS Nelson at sunset of burials at sea from the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. At this point he broke down in tears and was unable to continue, a moment of unforgettable poignancy for those present.

Mark Houghton
John Black

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2010 341 4214; The Telegraph 22 October 2009].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England