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Biographical entry Thomas, David Richard (1937 - 2013)

MRCS LRCP 1961; MB BS London 1961; FRCS 1967.

11 June 1937
Watford, Hertfordshire
8 August 2013
General surgeon


David Thomas was a consultant surgeon at Derbyshire Royal Infirmary and Derbyshire Children's Hospital. He was descended from four generations of Welsh coalminers. His father, Richard, had left Wales in the 1920s, looking for work, and ended up in Watford, where he met and subsequently married the woman who would become David's mother. David was born in Watford on 11 June 1937. His family struggled financially, but David got into Watford Grammar School and subsequently studied medicine at King's College, London, and St George's Hospital. He thoroughly enjoyed his time at St George's and had many stories about his exploits there and of some of the consultants whom he admired or were eccentric.

He qualified MB BS in 1961 and did medical, surgical and obstetric house jobs at St George's Hospital. He then worked as a ship's surgeon with the Union Castle line. After three trips, worried he might develop an alcohol problem, he returned to England and became an assistant in general practice. Surprisingly, he found time to study for the primary FRCS, which he passed first time. He then got a job as a casualty registrar at St Thomas' Hospital, where he met Jo Newton, a night sister, who subsequently became his wife. They later moved to Leamington Spa, where he was a surgical registrar. He then obtained a post at St George's Hospital and later a senior registrar post in Sheffield.

Part of his rotation from Sheffield was to Derby. While he was there the senior surgeon had a detached retina and David was his locum for three months. On his retirement, in 1973, David was appointed as his replacement. During his training he had developed an interest in paediatric surgery and he was appointed at the Children's Hospital as well as the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary and the Derby City Hospital.

He was extremely hard working and conscientious in his NHS work and teaching, and yet developed a very busy private practice. He was told as a trainee that to have a good private practice a surgeon must have a smart suit and a smart car, and within a few years David was the proud owner of a Rolls Royce!

When he was appointed there was no formal private hospital in Derby, although some operations could be carried out at a Catholic Nursing Home. He was the driving force in helping to raise the initial money and generally pushing through the development of the Nuffield Hospital, which was opened in October 1981. There is a plaque just outside the Nuffield Hospital operating theatre which states: 'without his foresight and energy the hospital would never have been built'.

Following his success at the Nuffield, he was asked to set up an appeal for a CT scanner and he set to the task with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm. This was so successful that only 14 months later sufficient money had been raised and the scanner was in service at Derbyshire Royal Infirmary.

His three daughters went to Derby High School and he was elected as a parent governor and subsequently chairman of the governors. He brought about a lot of improvements in the running of the school and continued as chairman for eight years, despite continuing with his extremely busy surgical practice.

In June 1986 he had his first heart attack, which occurred during an operation on a three-month-old baby with an inguinal hernia. Despite having chest pain and not feeling well, he managed to finish the operation. He then smoked what he decided would be his last cigarette, which he wanted to really enjoy, and was admitted as a patient to coronary care.

Following this he was advised to slow down from his previously frenetic rate of work. He reduced his emergency commitment and avoided very major and complex operations. This happened at about the same time as NHS breast screening was being recommended. Margaret Cohen, consultant radiologist, became director of the Derby Screening Unit and David helped on the surgical side. With his fundraising experience, he helped to set up the breast test appeal, under the umbrella of the previous scanner appeal, which by then was called the SAME (scanner and medical equipment) appeal. In 1993 a state of the art breast unit was set up in Derby, which continues to be a centre of excellence.

At about the same time David had taken an interest in computing and set up an excellent surgical audit programme.

David and Jo, his first wife, separated and divorced in 1992. He subsequently met Dorothy and they married in 1995.

After further heart problems in 1992 David was advised to take early retirement. He took up fly fishing, which he loved and an American fishing friend invited him to go to Florida. He and Dorothy ended up buying a condominium there. Typical of David, wanting to keep his mind active, he enrolled on a real estate course in Florida, and obtained a salesman's licence! He also continued his interest in fishing and had a Boston Whaler, a small fishing boat, and also drove a Ford Mustang convertible. He and Dorothy had many happy times in Florida, but, when he reached 65, he could not arrange medical insurance in the US, so they sold the condo and bought a property in the south of France overlooking the Bay of St Tropez.

He was a larger than life character who was fun to be with. He had an extremely active professional life, though it was cut short by heart trouble. He achieved far more in his shortened time than most people who go on to full retirement age. He then had a very full and enjoyable retirement.

He developed gradually deteriorating heart failure and, when he became terminally ill, he asked to be admitted to the Nuffield, for which he had previously done so much. The day before he died, enjoying life to the end, he asked for a bottle of champagne, which he drank in his room with Dorothy, his three daughters and Michael Millar-Craig, the cardiologist who had looked after him so well for 27 years. The event was recorded in the nursing records of that day! He died on 8 August 2013, at the age of 76 and was survived by his second wife Dorothy, daughters Charlotte, Amanda and Emily, and granddaughter Ruby.

Ken Callum

The Royal College of Surgeons of England