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Biographical entry Owen, Kenneth (1920 - 2013)

MRCS LRCP 1944; MB BS London 1944; FRCS 1950; BA Oxford Brookes 2000.

11 June 1920
Wallasey, Cheshire
7 June 2013
General surgeon and Urologist


Ken Owen was a well-known urologist in London with an international reputation, particularly in the Middle East and throughout Europe, especially in Scandinavia and Italy. His first consultant appointment was as a general surgeon to the Royal Northern Hospital in 1957, succeeding McNeill Love, who smoothed his passage into consultant life. After two years he obtained his main sessions at St Mary's Hospital, initially as a general surgeon. With the blessing of his colleagues, he switched to urology and founded the urology unit. He retained a strong interest in parathyroid surgery, and also developed the renal transplantation programme, thereby using his unique training in vascular surgery. Shortly after his appointment to this famous teaching hospital, he was made a member of the staff of St Peter's Hospital for Stone. Here he valued the contact with a broad spectrum of specialist urologists.

He was born on 11 June 1920 in Wallasey, Cheshire, the son of Albert Edward Owen, a timber merchant. His mother, Ada née Holmes, was a housewife. She had major problems with chest infections, and doctors and nurses were constant visitors to the family homes. Her medical condition undoubtedly influenced Ken's choice of career. He also had one brother, Jack, who also had health problems and died prematurely.

Ken's primary education was somewhat disrupted due to family moves, but his secondary education at Wallasey Grammar School was stable, productive and very happy under an inspiring headmaster, F L Allen. Ken's academic interests were spread equally between the arts and sciences, demonstrated by his choice of an anthology of poems for a chemistry prize. Music became an interest at school, and remained throughout his very full life: he loved a broad range of classical music and operetta. A very keen sportsman, he enjoyed rugby and all forms of athletics, particularly middle-distance running. In 1936 he attended the Berlin Olympics on a school trip.

He had to study botany and zoology at a crammer in order to gain exemption from the first MB examination. Plans to go to Cambridge were shelved in view of the certainty of war, and he was awarded a scholarship to study medicine at St Mary's Hospital, known for its encouragement of sport. The war with Germany made for shorter courses in all medical schools, many of which were evacuated from London for preclinical teaching. Ken's first term at medical school was in Manchester: this proved a bonus, as he could go to performances of the Hallé orchestra. Sector hospitals such as Harefield and Basingstoke played a part in his clinical years, but much of his training was in London, where air-raids and their casualties were an accepted part of student life, together with fire-watching and Home Guard duties. For a time he lived in the bacteriology wing of St Mary's as a participant in the emergency blood transfusion unit. Instead of drips, the students injected blood using large triple nozzle syringes. There were no disposable items, and Ken had to sharpen and sterilise his own needle, gaining considerable experience in venepuncture. He was also actively involved in the emergency care of patients. Outstanding teachers during these formative years included Charles Pannett, George Pickering and the colourful surgeon Arthur Dickson Wright. They all encouraged active thinking, as opposed to learning by rote. Ken passed the primary FRCS early and this led to demonstrator positions in anatomy and physiology.

He then worked for three months prior to qualification with Lawrence Abel and Kenneth Heritage at the Princess Beatrice Hospital. Immediately after qualification, he was appointed for a short period as house physician to George Pickering and then as a house surgeon to Arthur Dickson Wright and Valentine Ellis, both stimulating teachers. Dickson Wright's surgical throughput was enormous and ranged from brain tumours to rectal carcinoma and the 'cottage industry' of varicose vein surgery. In these war years, and as part of the Allied European invasion plan, Park Prewett Hospital, Basingstoke, was designated as a clearing hospital with supporting staff from St Mary's. As a base hospital it received large numbers of severely wounded soldiers. Dickson Wright chose to work in London during the day and drove Ken down to Basingstoke to deal with night casualties. His mentor's driving expertise did not match his surgical skill, and the journeys were even more stressful than a potential 24 hour shift. Ken's next training post was at Basingstoke as an orthopaedic house surgeon to Valentine Ellis, James Ellis and Heber Langton, all hard-working and skilful surgeons.

He had volunteered for the RAF at the beginning of the war, but had been advised to continue his medical training. Following the end of the war, he decided to go to the Sudan, a post that fulfilled his requirement to carry out National Service. He was based initially in Khartoum, at the Kitchener Medical School, but spent most of his time at Wad Medani, in Al Gezira state. Often with limited facilities, he dealt with conditions varying from smallpox and tetanus to hip diseases, mastoid operations and camel bites, to name but a few. Surgery was performed using spinal anaesthesia or an Oxford vaporiser. However, sporting opportunities did arise: he played tennis and was introduced to polo playing.

With independence for Sudan looming, Ken decided to return home. For a time he was a private assistant to Dickson Wright, before spending a year at Chase Farm Hospital, Enfield, working with a delightful Canadian born-surgeon, Hugh Blauvelt. Finally, he obtained a senior registrar post at St Mary's, first on the Handfield-Jones and Porritt firm. He then worked with Dickson Wright and John Goligher. Ken admired the latter for his surgical skill and honesty: they kept up a friendship after Goligher moved to Leeds.

Like many St Mary's trainees, Ken's next move was to Boston, Massachusetts, with the aid of a Fulbright scholarship. He worked with the dynamic Francis D Moore, Mosley professor of surgery at the Peter Bent Brigham hospital and Harvard Medical School, well known for his studies on the metabolic response to surgery. Ken also taught operative techniques to medical students under the watchful eye of Carl Walter, the inventor of the Fenwal bag used in blood transfusions. Working in the Harvard Medical School laboratories with Robert Desautels, he did animal work on post-traumatic renal failure and established the role of osmotic diuresis in reducing the severity of organ failure. He made good use of the opportunity to witness the superb skills of Richard Cattell at the Lahey Clinic, and went to the Massachusetts General Hospital as often as he could. He also visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and its adjacent hospitals, witnessing the skilful work of Ollie Beahrs and others.

Shortly after returning from the USA, Ken was appointed as assistant director to Charles Rob on the professorial unit at St Mary's and became involved in the burgeoning vascular surgery, as well as doing research on prosthetic materials. The work in Boston and a longstanding interest in renal physiology directed his future to urology, and he spent a year as a senior registrar at St Peter's Hospital for Stone.

He found he was drawn into administrative work in an attempt to improve working conditions at St Mary's. This proved frustrating, with plans often repeatedly thwarted by politicians and administrators reneging on promises. However, promoting the cause of urology on the European and International scene was gratifying. He was a founder member of the European Society of Urology and the British representative on the Societé International d'Urologie. This gave him contact with established urology units run by well-known urologists such as Peter Gammelgaard in Copenhagen, Lars Rohl in Heidelberg and also Cesare Bartorelli of Milan, who shared Ken's interest in renal hypertension.

A writer of many publications in varied journals, he wrote many monographs and sections in postgraduate textbooks, the main topics being renovascular reconstruction, renal transplantation, adrenal surgery (at which he excelled), as well as parathyroid surgery.

For some 10 years, from 1967, Ken was a member of the Travelling Surgical Club (now the Travelling Surgical Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). He was an active member of many other organisations, including the British Association of Urological Surgeons (he also served on council). He was president of the urological section of the Royal Society of Medicine and later an honorary life fellow. While president, he conceived the idea of 'uro-ski' meetings, where skiing and science were mixed, and members were joined by European colleagues. He was a freeman of the City of London, through the Society of Apothecaries. He was president of the Hunterian Society, and a council member and secretary of the Medical Society of London.

Ken met Barbara Caroline Lewis, a nurse, during his early years at St Mary's and they married in 1947. She was very supportive of his multi-faceted life: without her help he could not have achieved so much. They made their home in Bancroft Avenue, London, where they brought up their family of three - Deborah Ann, Timothy Clive and David Christopher.

Ken was happy to relax of an evening with family and friends, perhaps with a glass of homemade beer and Italian cheeses, eating his homemade bread: at some time he read the daily avalanche of journals coming through the letter box. In addition to his care of the garden, Ken found time to look after two allotments. The family also had a holiday home in the Algarve, where Ken grew grapes, oleander trees and exotic shrubs. When Barbara inherited Brynbanc, a smallholding in Wales, Ken turned it into a viable, modern dairy farm, with the help of local farm managers and quick weekend visits.

Ken retired in stages, starting in 1980: he left his last consultant appointment (at King Edward VII Hospital) in 1990. In 1985 Ken and Barbara moved to Hillside Farm in Adelstrop in the Cotswolds, where they lived happily for 25 years. An inactive retirement was never on the cards. In addition to creating a beautiful garden, Ken now became a sheep farmer. He also found time to ride with local hunts, and began to study languages (he graduated from Oxford Brookes University in 2000 with a BA in modern languages). He also had the opportunity to spend quality time with his family, their partners and the grandchildren.

Kenneth Owen died on 7 June 2013, just short of his 93rd birthday. He was survived by his wife, Barbara, his children and grandchildren. At a thanksgiving service for his life, his children summarised him as being risk-averse, yet someone who seized opportunities, opinionated, yet remarkably open-minded, and conventional, yet fascinated by innovation. Those of us who were privileged to be his colleagues found him approachable, likeable and someone who became a true friend.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Travelling Surgical Society Reports and Minutes 1967-77; Tim Owen, David Owen and Deborah Guy].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England