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Biographical entry Dignan, Albert Patrick (1920 - 2012)

CB 1978; FRCS 1976; MBE 1952; MB BCh BAO Dublin 1943; MD 1968; FRCSI 1947.

25 July 1920
Dublin, Ireland
11 October 2012
Tetbury, Gloucestershire
Accident and emergency surgeon and Military surgeon


Albert Patrick ('Paddy') Dignan was a former director of Army surgery. He was a remarkable character who was born into a modest family in Dublin. His father, Joseph, a tailor, was able to get all five of his sons through medical school. (Whether an ability to stitch can be inherited remains open to speculation.) Joseph Dignan had worked in the War Office during the First World War collating casualty lists, and had concluded that doctors were less likely to die during wars.

Patrick won a medical scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, which certainly eased the financial burden on his parents. Unusually, he became an anatomy demonstrator as a student and from that time decided to pursue a career in surgery, qualifying in 1943 and proceeding to the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1947.

In order to supplement his income after qualifying he became a GP's assistant, sending much of his income to his family back in Ireland. He was then a resident surgical officer at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, a registrar in Wigan, and a senior registrar at the Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Wanstead Hospital, London.

He then carried out his National Service, going to Malaya as a surgical specialist in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Emergency, with the rank of captain, subsequently major. He had been under no compunction to sign on, being Irish, but decided to do so anyway and his efforts there culminated in his award of an MBE in 1952.

It was during that tour of duty that he met his future wife Eileen (Helena née White), who happened to be designated as his theatre sister. Their first meeting was less than immediately convivial. She had been ambushed by Malayan insurgents in a convoy on the way to the hospital and she had arrived late and in a not unsurprisingly dishevelled state. Patrick had been raring to start his list and gave her a strong ticking off.

After a transient look at civilian practice, he made the decision that the excitement of military surgery prevailed and he re-joined in December 1953 as a regular Army doctor. During the next eight years he served primarily in military hospitals in Germany, but for a short period in Cyprus during the Suez Crisis of 1956. On a posting to the British Military Hospital Singapore in 1961 he began publishing papers on exotic surgical cases in consequence of tropical diseases.

On his return to Tidworth in Hampshire, he took a great interest in the prevailing surgical treatment of peptic ulcers and gained an MD for his work on this topic. This was by no means easy, working as he was in a military hospital, with no direct university back-up support.

During his penultimate tour, by then a brigadier in Singapore, and as a consultant surgeon to the Army in the Far East, he visited Vietnam at the height of the war in 1969 and became very impressed by the benefits of the evacuation of wounded soldiers by helicopter. There were others in the Army at that time who also realised this need, and helicopters were unofficially used in Borneo, Oman and Northern Ireland, despite the Ministry of Defence's continued refusal to sign up to the idea of medical helicopter evacuation. It is perhaps interesting to note that in both Iraq and Afghanistan this became standard practise, with evacuation hugely enhanced by on-board resuscitation teams. Patrick was, like many of his military colleagues, prescient.

On his promotion to major general in 1974 as director of Army surgery, he was able to continue with his surgical practice at the Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital at Millbank, rather than become just an administrator, a move that enhanced his position with junior staff. In truth, he was more than happy to flee the headquarters of the Army Medical Services on a regular basis to avoid the persistent intrusion of a whole crowd of junior non-medical administrative officers attempting to introduce quite nonsensical bright ideas that had no proven evidence-based support. This was his last military appointment and he retired from the Army in 1978.

In the same year he was appointed as an accident and emergency consultant at the newly-opened Ealing Hospital in west London, but was unhappy and resigned after 18 months. He concluded that the ways of the Defence Medical Services, with its recognised chain of command, bore no relation to the NHS as it was operating at that time. This was followed by 10 very happy years as president of the medical boards, based at the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich.

Paddy was a sharp rather than blunt dissector, but his results were always very good. His compassion for his patients on the oncology/cancer unit at Millbank and bedside manner was unparalleled and much admired. He was the most concerned and kind clinician one could imagine. His dealings with some particularly ill-disciplined junior surgeons was robust; in one case he was threatened by a disgruntled young surgeon, who nearly thumped him. His comment after that interview was that 'it had been difficult'.

His autobiography A doctor's experiences of life (Edinburgh, Pentland Press, 1994) was less than accurate, which is perhaps a pity. While writing about some very frightening surgical emergencies, he sometimes neglected to credit the other people who had been directly involved.

Outside medicine, he was enthusiastic about horse racing and golf. At the latter, he was frankly a menace. One incident ended up being reported in the The Straits Times in Singapore, when his driver ended up 30 feet up a tree and had to be rescued by his caddy. He also managed to hit a series of other golfers with his wayward shots.

He was great fun to be with and his conversation was always engaging, incorporating a mixture of humour, sagacity and utter nonsense, almost one after the other.

Sadly his wife Eileen died in 2001, and he ended his days happy in the Priory Home in Tetbury, from where he was able to go for a pint and place the odd bet. He died on 11 October 2012, at the age of 92, and was survived by his sons, Terence and Fergus, and daughter, Finola.

He was a consummate surgeon and a thoroughly delightful colleague, who gave the most superb and genuine support to all his patients, and was basically a very gentle, kind and considerate man. The idea of a gentle director of Army surgery seems somehow out of place, but was, in this case, correct.

Peter Craig

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard News - accessed 28 August 2013; The Daily Telegraph 31 December 2012].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England