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Biographical entry Sewell, Robert Henry (1920 - 2012)

BSc Manchester 1940; MB ChB 1943; MRCS LRCP 1943; ChM 1949; FRCS Edin 1949; FRCS 1950.

21 September 1920
14 April 2012
Orthopaedic surgeon and Trauma surgeon


Robert Sewell was an orthopaedic and trauma surgeon in Greenwich. He was born in Horwich, Greater Manchester, on 21 September 1920, the son of James Scott Sewell, a general practitioner and a part-time medical officer of health, and Emily Sewell née Patton, a housewife. His elder brother, Thomas Patton Sewell, also qualified in medicine and became deputy medical officer of health for Lancashire. Sewell was educated first at home with a governess, and then attended Bolton School, where he was in the gymnastics eight and also played chess and boxed. In 1937 he went to Manchester University to read medicine. In 1940 he gained the anatomy prize, and in 1943, the year he qualified, the clinical surgical prize. As a student in Manchester Walter Schlapp supported him in his physiological research for his BSc degree, while Frederic Wood Jones encouraged him in his anatomy studies and advised him to take the primary FRCS in 1941, whilst he was still a student.

Sewell was a house surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary in 1943, and a senior house surgeon at Preston Royal Infirmary in 1944. From 1944 to 1946 he was a registrar and senior registrar in trauma and orthopaedics to Sir Harry Platt at Manchester Royal Infirmary, treating casualties from the Second World War. He then served for two years in the RAMC and was posted to Jamaica as a surgeon to the North and South Caribbean Commands.

Sewell returned to the UK in 1948, and became a surgical clinical assistant to the Metropolitan Hospital. From 1949 to 1952 he was a registrar and then a senior registrar at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, where he worked with John Cholmeley, A T Fripp, J I P James, Philip Newman and David Trevor. J I P James initiated his interest in hand surgery, while David Trevor reinforced his continuing interest in children's surgery.

In 1952, at the age of just 31, he was appointed as a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon to St Alfege's and the Miller General hospitals in Greenwich, where he faced the challenge of bringing together staff from two very different hospitals. He successfully developed an orthopaedic department and organised an accident and emergency service for Greenwich. He was also actively involved in the planning of the new Greenwich District Hospital. He chaired the medical committee for several years and, from 1973 to 1974, served on the Area Health Authority. From the late 1960s, he also built up a large medico-legal practice, as well as a small private orthopaedic practice.

He described himself as a 'GP' orthopaedic surgeon. Because St Alfege's Hospital had the second largest diabetic clinic in the country, he became interested in the orthopaedic complications of diabetes. He was also interested in Dupuytren's contracture, congenital dislocation of the hip and talipes. He wrote on a variety of orthopaedic topics, including excision of the patella, Hand-Schüller-Christian disease and osteoarthritis of the hip.

He was a member of the British Orthopaedic Association, chairman of the Greenwich branch of the British Medical Association, and president of the West Kent Medico Chirurgical Society. He was a liveryman of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, a freeman of the City of London and a member of the City Livery Club.

Sewell retired early, in July 1983. As he himself put it, he found he 'was no longer enjoying…clinical work due to the increasing interference of the NHS administration'. He continued his medico-legal work, and finally retired in June 1988.

Outside medicine, he was interested in rose growing and showing (until he developed asthma), travel, reading and, in his retirement, following the stock market.

In July 1945 he married Peggy Joan Kearton Chandler, known as 'Joan'. They had two daughters, Carole Gay and Cherry Margot. Robert Henry Sewell died on 14 April 2012, aged 91.

Sarah Gillam

The Royal College of Surgeons of England