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Biographical entry Butler, Michael Frank (1924 - 2013)

MB BS London 1945; FRCS 1949.

21 January 1924
16 August 2013
Broadstairs, Kent
General surgeon and Vascular surgeon


Mike Butler helped establish and develop general surgical services in the Isle of Thanet, Margate and Ramsgate, Kent. He was born on 21 January 1924 in London, the third child and first son of Frank Butler and Ailsa Butler née Beckwith. His father served in the First World War and was a dentist, originally in Harley Street and then in Finsbury Square in the City of London. He was also a keen and gifted amateur musician: his wide circle of musical friends included Gustav Holst, who was a regular visitor to the family home. Mike's early appreciation and love of music was to stay with him for the rest of his life.

He was educated at Tollington Preparatory School in London and, from 1937, he was a boarder at Bishop's Stortford College in Hertfordshire. He played both cricket and rugby in the school first teams. He entered St Mary's Hospital to study medicine at the age of 17, in 1941. He gained a prize in anatomy and the Meadowe's prize in obstetrics, and qualified in 1945, at the age of 21.

His first post was as a resident obstetric officer at St Mary's, and this was followed by a spell as a house surgeon at the Royal South Hants Hospital, Southampton. In addition to surgical duties, the house surgeon was also expected to give anaesthetics for procedures such as tonsillectomy or cystoscopy.

In 1946 he joined the RAF for his National Service and was appointed medical officer to RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland. The posting proved quiet enough for him to complete the reading and study required to pass the primary FRCS in 1948.

After leaving the RAF in early 1948, he took a further house job in surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Bournemouth. After passing his final fellowship in 1949, he was appointed as a junior registrar to W J Lytle in Sheffield. The position provided ample experience and training in elective abdominal, thyroid, breast, hernia, prostate and basic children's surgery. He felt that he learnt from Lytle the basis of a sound and safe surgical technique and a practical common sense approach to surgical problems and administration. This was to provide the basis for his surgical practice for the rest of his career. After a further year as registrar in Sheffield, he was appointed to the Westminster Hospital in London as a middle grade registrar to E Stanley Lee and George Macnab. The work involved not only the usual general and urology cases, but also major head and neck and breast cancer surgery with Lee and some brain surgery with Macnab. There was a weekly combined clinic led by Sir Stanford Cade, which usually had a remarkable collection of cancer cases to consider.

In 1954 he was appointed as a senior registrar to Kingston Hospital with Richard Franklin, a post he held for two years, before rotating back to Westminster as senior registrar to Lee, Macnab and the newly-appointed thoracic surgeon, Charles Drew. Drew was ploughing a fairly lonely furrow developing his technique for open heart surgery using profound hypothermia, at a time when most cardiac surgeons were using and developing the heart-lung machine for these cases. Mike was interested to see the development and practice of the technique, and recognised the heart-searching that the pioneering Drew endured - particularly in the early days when fatalities were not uncommon.

During the latter part of his time at Westminster he took a post as a clinical assistant to the urological surgeon David Wallace at St Peter's and St Paul's. Early in 1960 he rotated into the post of research assistant to Charles Drew. Some unsuccessful attempts at heart and lung transplants in greyhounds and feasibility studies on the possibilities of coronary artery endarterectomy using cadaveric hearts were undertaken. Although he found research work interesting, Mike didn't see his future as an academic surgeon: he was appointed as a consultant general surgeon to the Isle of Thanet Hospital group in 1960.

His sessions were all based in Thanet, with colleagues from Canterbury having sessions in Thanet and covering some of the emergency rota. Initially he covered general surgery for the hospitals in Margate and Ramsgate. A true general surgeon, he could turn his hand to most operations, including chest and urology. As sub-specialisation developed in general surgery he was able to drop urology. He developed an interest in the newly-developing peripheral vascular surgery and was able, by visiting London centres, to train himself to a good standard. He helped develop and rationalise surgical service provision in Thanet with the gradual upgrading of the Margate site and the closure of Ramsgate Hospital to acute admissions. It was not until the 1990s, after his retirement in 1989, that the development of hospital services in Thanet was finally completed with the opening of the new Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother hospital.

In 1947 Mike married Marjorie (née Parsons), a theatre nurse from the Royal South Hants. They had two children, Christopher, a surgeon, and Nigel, a general practitioner. An accomplished pianist and choral singer, Mike also enjoyed dinghy sailing, wind surfing and skiing. A keen and devoted family man, during his retirement he enjoyed watching his seven grandchildren grow up and taught them all to sail and surf. In 2010 his knowledge of anatomy was still good enough to help one grandchild pass his MRCS examination.

He was a very fit man and enjoyed good health for most of his life, with the only significant surgery being a successful coronary artery bypass operation after a myocardial infarction in 2001. The last few months of his life were frustrating as the effects of a failing tricuspid valve made him rather short of breath and not able to attend to his large garden as he wished. He was spared any significant failing of his mental faculties and died suddenly but peacefully on 16 August 2013, aged 89, with his wife of 66 years by his side at home in the house that they had shared together for 53 years on the cliff top at Broadstairs. He was survived by his wife, two sons, four grandsons, three granddaughters and two great granddaughters.

Christopher M Butler

Sources used to compile this entry: [Personal knowledge and information from 'My autobiography' by M F Butler, written in 2006, unpublished; BMJ 2013 347 5985].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England