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Biographical entry Poirier, Henry (1931 - 2014)

MB BS London 1954; FRCS 1960; TD.

2 August 1931
13 February 2014
Orthopaedic surgeon


Henry Poirier was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex. The original family name of Birnbaum, meaning 'pear tree', was changed to the French equivalent - Poirier - by his grandfather, who shortly afterwards emigrated to Chile with his English wife, where he set up as a fur trader in Santiago. Henry's father, Arthur, relocated to London and, with Faye, Henry's mother, set up in business as clothiers. Henry was born in Forest Gate on 2 August 1931 and brought up in Wanstead, but during the war was evacuated first to Stansted in Essex and then Kidlington in Oxfordshire.

Henry's post-war education was at Wanstead County High School, during which time he immersed himself in all manner of non-academic pursuits, including rugby, athletics, acting on stage, debating, painting and joining the air section of the Combined Cadet Force. He also joined and attended the Ilford Jewish Youth Club.

His father tragically died when he was 15, and his uncle became his sponsor. His initial wish was to study architecture, but this was vetoed by the family, who felt it was not a secure profession. They were however prepared to fund his education in medicine. Notwithstanding his many diverse activities at school, he managed to achieve a scholarship to St Bartholomew's Hospital and thoroughly enjoyed his time as a medical student, pursuing all the activities he adopted at school, especially the stage, performing in plays and acting in and writing Christmas shows. He qualified MB BS in June 1954 and was appointed to prestigious house jobs at Bart's. He was house physician to Sir Ronald Bodley Scott, and house surgeon to Basil Hume and Alan Hunt.

In August 1954 he was conscripted into the Army to carry out his National Service and was posted for two years to Malaya to the Military Hospital, where he had to deal with a substantial amount of trauma injuries, as there was still an emergency in the region. He also spent three months as the resident medical officer to the 1st Battalion of the Queen's Royal Regiment stationed in Singapore, and was promoted to the rank of major. After National Service, he joined the Territorial Army, commanding a field surgical team, committing him to a minimum of two weeks Army camp a year, which he continued well into his time as a consultant. He was awarded a Territorial Decoration with bar.

In order to pursue a surgical career, he became an anatomy demonstrator at King's College, passing his primary FRCS at the first attempt, during which time he met his future wife Marian. They were married in August 1959.

This was followed by a two-year general surgical registrar post back at Bart's, enabling him to obtain the final FRCS exam at the first attempt. In 1960 he was fortunate to be appointed as a registrar to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) at Stanmore and Great Portland Street, where he stayed until his consultant appointment at Harlow in January 1965. He wrote two peer-reviewed, cited articles on 'Epiphysial stapling and leg equalisation' (J Bone Joint Surg Br February 1968 50-B: 61-69) and Massive osteolysis of the humerus treated by resection and prosthetic replacement' (J Bone Joint Surg Br February 1968 50-B: 158-160).

From the RNOH he was sent by Sir Herbert Seddon to work in France under Albert Trillat of Lyons for four months, one of Europe's leading knee surgeons. and this was to become his special interest. It also inspired in him a love of France and all things French.

In January 1965 he joined Geoffrey Fisk at the new Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow at the very young age of 34. With Fisk he was instrumental in ensuring that registrars from Bart's spent six months at Harlow, in what became the prestigious Percivall Pott Club rotation.

He set up a knee clinic at Harlow, joined international and European societies of knee surgeons, and became a founder member of the British Association for Surgery of the Knee.

At this point in his career newly emerging procedures relating to the knee were being introduced, in particular arthroscopy, although it was just before the common use of the video stack, total knee replacement and extra articular stabilisation techniques for ruptured cruciate ligaments. Many procedures were performed to stave off the inevitable time when total knee replacement would be required, including tibial and femoral osteotomy, patellar advancement and realignment. Further papers, on the morbidity of arthroscopy and chondromalacia of the unstable patella, were published from his unit, and many presentations were made to learned societies.

He was a popular and respected trainer of surgeons in the north Thames region and was appointed president of the Percivall Pott Club in 1991. He had invitations to lecture as visiting professor at Boston University and also lectured in Canada and Belgium. At various times he sat on and chaired hospital and regional committees, certainly pulling his weight in a medical advisory capacity and in administration.

Outside of his professional achievements, he continued his love affair with the stage, joining the Bishop's Stortford Amateur Operatic Society and three other theatre groups, with whom he played many leading roles using his fine baritone voice to its full capacity. He continued to tread the boards both behind and in front of the stage in musicals and theatre until well after his retirement.

He excelled at alpine skiing, having been taught as a teenager, and with his medical knowledge and skiing skills was invited to co-found the Uphill Ski Club, a charity that enabled disabled young people to enjoy the experience and freedom of skiing and moving over snow, an organisation which flourishes to this day.

Apart from all these activities, he was a natural writer and wrote short stories, books, plays and poems, some of which were privately published. Not satisfied with these achievements, he was a prodigious artist, creating paintings and drawings, ranging from portraits to landscapes, many painted in his traditional house in France. He loved beautiful crafted artifacts and was a knowledgeable collector of oriental cloisonné, or finely decorated metalwork. He loved good food and became an accomplished cook with a critical appreciation of wines.

Unfortunately, abdominal surgery in 1989 led to his early retirement in 1991, but allowed him to indulge his wide diversity of interests outside medicine. Sadly his final year or so of life was beset by illness relating to his previous surgery, which he bore with stoicism and without complaint.

He was blessed with a 'twinkly' persona, without a trace of conceit or pomposity, and everyone with whom he came into contact loved and admired him. In short Henry Poirier was a true polymath, with amazingly wide ranging interests and multiple talents, who will leave a substantial gap in his community.

He was survived by his wife Marian, three children, Nicole, Paul and David, and seven grandchildren.

David Nairn

Sources used to compile this entry: [Interviews with family members and friends; personal diary of Henry Poirier; Percivall Pott Club archive].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England Library