Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Owen-Smith, Michael Stephen (1934 - 2013)

OStJ 1980; MRCS 1961; MB BS London 1962; FRCS Edin 1965; FRCS 1966; MS London 1971; Hon MD Linköping 1993.

11 August 1934
18 April 2013
General surgeon and Military surgeon


Michael Owen-Smith helped establish the new Hinchingbrooke District General Hospital in Huntingdon after a distinguished career in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was born in Dulwich, south London, to Francis and Winifred Owen-Smith (née Bailey) on 11 August 1934, and lived much of his early life there, apart from a period when he was evacuated to Wales during the Second World War. His father was a civil servant and his mother a teacher of dance and swimming. Both loved sport in all its forms (Francis was a talented runner and keen cricketer) and passed this on to Michael, who excelled at cricket and rugby, representing his school at both these sports. Michael was educated at St Dunstan's College, then at Colfe's Grammar School. Both schools are in south London.

From a very early age Michael's chief ambition was to become a surgeon. Upon leaving school, National Service loomed and he opted for a short service commission with the Royal Artillery. He was posted immediately to Hong Kong, where he represented the Army at cricket and rugby. Michael left the Army in 1957 to study medicine at University College and University College Hospital Medical School. Memorable tutors there included Charles Dent (metabolic medicine), Max Rosenheim (general medicine) and Robin Pilcher (surgery). He won the Erichson prize in surgery, which required very detailed knowledge of surgical instruments. This deterred other students from applying and he turned out to be the only applicant!

After undertaking two house jobs at University College Hospital, Michael passed the primary FRCS at the first attempt in 1963, then re-enlisted in the Army after extracting a promise that he would have a surgical career in the service. To the chagrin of some senior officers and their wives, he automatically regained his original military number and its embedded social seniority.

An early posting was with submarines with the Scots Guards; Michael was the only RAMC member in submarines at the time. From 1967 to 1969, Michael was posted to Terendak Military Hospital in Malaysia and the family accompanied him there. Soon afterwards, he was posted to the Gurkha recruiting centre in Dharan, eastern Nepal, for a demanding and memorable six weeks. Here he had to deal with retained placentas, bear bites, cleft lips and many burns and traumatic injuries. He also did a regular general medical clinic where tuberculosis was a common diagnosis. Upon leaving, he was presented with a specially handmade silver-mounted Gurkha kukri knife, complete with an RAMC crest.

Further surgical training was at Hammersmith Hospital, Kingston Hospital and finally Queen Alexandra Military Hospital (QAMH), all in London. He was appointed consultant surgeon to QAMH in 1971, then spent three years at Anzuk Military Hospital in Singapore, before returning to QAMH and Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital as professor of military surgery at a very young age, a post he held between 1975 and 1981.

He then left the Army (with the rank of lieutenant colonel) and obtained a consultant general surgical post in Huntingdon, initially at the little Hunts County Hospital, before transferring in 1983 to the new Hinchingbrooke Hospital, its replacement. He was a prime mover in the Huntingdon District breakaway from the Cambridge Area Health Authority and attended the House of Commons to support the local MP, John Major, on this issue. Huntingdonshire was poorly served with hospitals at that time and Hinchingbrooke was largely built because of local pressure and demand. It is a 'best buy' design, one of four in East Anglia, and from its beginnings was almost uniquely staffed with no registrars. Michael was used to working without registrars, along with the other former military consultants appointed there, and strongly supported a 'consultant delivered' service. This was then a novel concept in the UK, but has since become a desirable norm. As a result, Hinchingbrooke has nearly always been highly rated for clinical service by its patients.

Michael was an early advocate of short stay surgery and introduced the Lichtenstein mesh hernia repair to Hinchingbrooke, conclusively demonstrating its advantages over older techniques. He later specialised in breast surgery, collaborating closely with the oncologist Karol Sikora on minimal surgery plus radiotherapy, a principle far more widely applied now than then. He also played a large part in establishing the Woodlands cancer centre at Hinchingbrooke.

Throughout Michael's military career he devoted much time to researching mechanisms of blast and missile injuries and is widely known today for the original insights he gained from shooting anaesthetised sheep that were subsequently sacrificed. In fact, he became an expert on intubating sheep for this purpose. Much of this research was performed at Porton Down near Salisbury, Wiltshire, now the UK government military science park. He published widely in this field, including his London MS thesis on the successful prophylaxis of gas gangrene in high velocity wounds by early administration of penicillin, a practical and important finding. Nationally and internationally, Michael lectured and demonstrated on the principles of war surgery, and was an annual fixture on the Swedish war surgery course - compulsory for Army surgical consultants - for over 20 years. He won the prestigious Alexander gold medal an unprecedented four times, in 1969, 1972, 1975 and 1981, for research papers that benefited wounded soldiers.

He was the author of a significant book High velocity missile wounds (London, Edward Arnold 1981) and co-author of several others, including Surgery for victims of war (Geneva, International Committee of the Red Cross, 1988) and The field surgery pocket book (London, HMSO, 1981. He also contributed a chapter on wounds and war injuries to Hamilton Bailey's emergency surgery (London, Arnold, 2000). His enquiring mind also gave rise to numerous other papers on, for example, left sided appendicitis, anal dilatation for haemorrhoids, phenol irrigation for pilonidal sinus and bilateral adrenalectomy for advanced breast cancer.

Michael was Hunterian professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1980 and gave a lecture on 'A computerised data retrieval system for the wounds of war - the Northern Ireland casualties'. This was based on the British Army's hostile action casualty system, which he single-handedly conceived and implemented. It is an original and effective means of forensically auditing the casualties of war and is still in use today. Michael was admitted to the Order of St John in 1980. He was a member of the Territorial Army between 1981 and 2001 and won the Territorial Decoration and Bar.

As a long-time senior Army officer, Michael could come across as unsympathetic, particularly when dealing with NHS administrators, who sometimes took his pronouncements in committee as dictatorial. Nurses, students and junior doctors were somewhat in awe of him, particularly in the early days in Huntingdon, but his modus operandi softened as time went by, and some nurses at least could get away with teasing him. He was always keen on teaching and training locally, and often took time to demonstrate techniques to juniors. He always fully supported his trainees and came in from home without hesitation for emergencies whenever he was needed.

Michael married Angela Mary née Norman, a fellow University College Hospital student, in June 1961. She later became a consultant community paediatrician. They had three children, all of whom studied medicine. Victoria is a consultant in public health medicine in Manchester, Oliver was a consultant anaesthetist in Birmingham (he predeceased his father in 2009) and Henrietta (Hetty) qualified as a doctor but is not currently practising medicine.

Michael was a keen and expert sportsman and enjoyed golf until his last days. He was very attached to an old flat hat he wore when dinghy sailing at St Ives and even when gardening and shopping, but Angela eventually banned it. He lived his life in the spirit of cricket - play by the rules with a straight bat and play the game. He was an expert and enthusiastic gardener and became a true family man, particularly with his grandchildren.

After a distinguished career in military surgery and allied research, Michael became an 'old-fashioned' general surgeon in the NHS, with a broad enough training to be able to deal with a wide range of emergency and elective surgery. He had a career-long enthusiasm for teaching and training in military surgery and in general surgery, and was independent-minded enough to see that a consultant-delivered service at Hinchingbrooke was the future. Trainees were sometimes in awe of him, but appreciated his straightforward no-nonsense approach and worked hard for him. He introduced several important new techniques to Hinchingbrooke, and looked critically at the results. He was a kind man, if a little stiff at times, and a good and generous colleague. He bore his final illness with enormous fortitude and without complaint. He died on 18 April 2013 at the age of 78. He is much missed in Huntingdonshire.

Clive Quick

Sources used to compile this entry: [Angela Owen-Smith; Leslie Payne].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England