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Biographical entry Moffat, Sir Cameron William (1929 - 2014)

KBE 1985; CStJ 1985; OBE 1975; OStJ 1972; MB ChB Glasgow 1952; DTM&H 1960; FRCS 1963; Hon DSc Glasgow 1991.

8 September 1929
29 June 2014
Freshwater, Isle of Wight
Military surgeon


Sir Cameron Moffat had the unique distinction of being the country's first surgeon general since the death of John Hunter in 1793. The post had lapsed until 1985, when he was appointed to the role. He was born on 8 September 1929 in Glasgow, the son of William Weir Moffat, a civil servant, and his wife Margaret Robertson (née Garrett). He was educated at King's Park School in Glasgow. During the Second World War he was evacuated to the Isle of Bute, where he attended Rothesay Academy. He went on to Glasgow University, where his elder brother, (John) Stewart, had preceded him in the faculty of medicine. As a student he was a most accomplished rower and had been selected to represent his country at the 1954 Commonwealth Games but, as this would have entailed losing a year of university, his father vetoed his involvement. He qualified MB ChB in 1952 with a distinction in surgery, and held house posts at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow.

Audrey Acquroff Watson had attracted his attention whilst acting in a play produced by a girls' school alongside King's Park. They were married in 1953. They had one son, Christopher, who became a histopathologist.

Sir Cameron's military career began during his National Service as medical officer to the Seaforth Highlanders based at Fort George and, such was the respect at that time for regimental medical officers, he was allocated a particularly smart and spacious quarter even as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). He extended the normal two-year period of National Service by taking a three-year short service commission, being promoted to captain and ending as a senior medical officer, Edinburgh district, in the rank of acting major.

Once he was demobilised, he joined his brother Stewart in general practice in Carlisle, but later moved to Orpington, where he realised that NHS general practice was not for him. His recent military experience, along with the camaraderie, his delight in dealing with Scottish soldiers and their families, and the whole professional ethos of the Army, remained so attractive that he decided to rejoin on a regular commission. He was warmly welcomed back by the RAMC in the substantive rank of captain.

Having completed his short service commission, he had been awarded a gratuity. Rather meanly, the Army tried to recover it. Initially, repayment of this money was required in order for him to be granted a regular commission, although by sheer charm, tenacity and tough negotiation he was able to defer doing so until he retired more than 30 years later. This 'canny' Scot was already learning how to influence the military hierarchy.

After re-joining, he attended a junior officers' course, coming second overall and winning the Michener, Tulloch and Parkes prizes. He passed the diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene and, after the primary fellowship in 1961, he began his surgical training. He benefitted greatly from secondments to Ian Aird's world-famous surgical unit at the Postgraduate Medical School based at the Hammersmith Hospital, London, and also with Peter London at the Birmingham Accident Hospital. The latter was the only dedicated accident hospital at that time in the country, and Peter London was the leading advocate for the training of trauma surgeons. These attachments were hugely helpful and became a powerful influence in his later surgical career. Tragically, Aird died unexpectedly shortly after Sir Cameron's secondment, but by then he had been imbued with the former's intellect, sagacity, wise judgement and surgical skills, which followed him throughout his career.

Intermingled with these secondments, Sir Cameron also served in junior surgical posts at the Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital at Millbank, the Royal Herbert at Woolwich, and the Cambridge Military Hospital at Aldershot. He passed his FRCS in 1963, just before his posting to British Military Hospital Taiping in Malaya.

Sir Cameron Moffat was unique amongst UK military surgeons by being seconded to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base's 4 Field Hospital at Butterworth in north Malaya during the height of the Australasian deployment to the Vietnam War. A joint Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) force held their area of ground in the Phuoc Tuy region of the country and RAAF Butterworth acted as a close back up base surgical support facility during the evacuation of casualties from the field hospitals prior to their repatriation to Australasia. There is no doubt that he honed his military surgical skills dealing with gunshot wounds of all types whilst there and these formed an excellent platform for his subsequent career in military surgery.

There is an anecdotal story about him arranging for the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers' workshop at Butterworth to build a fairly primitive external fixator for the treatment of a clean long bone fracture. Despite being warned that using such transcutaneous metalwork in the tropics would be bound to lead to infection, he nevertheless undertook the procedure, which proved highly successful. This was of course well before the concept of external fixation of fractures had achieved a degree of popularity in the UK and elsewhere. The technique has since proved to be extremely useful in the temporary management of complex soft tissue and bony injuries inflicted by the recent generation of the weapons of war.

On his return from Malaya in 1967, he was posted to the British Military Hospital in Rinteln in Lower Saxony, West Germany, as a consultant surgeon. One way and another he spent three tours there. In the late 1960s the quality of expertise of surgeons in the British Army of the Rhine hospitals was measured in large part by those cases which needed to be referred back to the United Kingdom, usually to the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital in London or the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. In Sir Cameron's case these were few in number, in comparison to his surgical colleagues at that time in posts in Germany.

It became evident that Sir Cameron's surgical skills and experience at Rinteln held him in extremely good stead and his reputation as a highly experienced, meticulous and knowledgeable surgeon grew during that tour. Thus, with his unique experiences in Malaya during the Vietnam War and the fairly wide surgical experience offered by the military hospitals in Germany, he became an obvious contender at the relatively young age of 41 for the highly prestigious post of joint professor of military surgery for the Royal Army Medical College at Millbank and the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1970. He held this post for five years, during which time he was promoted to colonel and was awarded an OBE in recognition of his contribution to advances in the treatment of missile injuries. Behind this was the work he supervised at Porton Down into the pathological effects of high velocity missiles. 1970 to 1975 was the time when the bombs, bullets and improvised explosive devices being used by the IRA in the north of Ireland came to the fore and he was instrumental in recording and analysing their effects and issuing appropriate guidelines as to their best surgical management, saving many soldiers' and marines' lives in the process.

Whilst joint professor at the RCS and the Royal Army Medical College, he was also consultant surgeon at Queen Alexandra Military Hospital. He delighted in teaching a whole string of junior surgeons whilst there, the writer of this obituary being but one. He also consolidated links with the Cade radiotherapy/oncology unit at the Westminster Hospital.

After the professorship he returned to Rinteln, West Germany, as a senior consultant surgeon. He and Audrey were given the same Army quarter in Droste-Hülshoff-Strasse and they re-inherited the splendid garden that they had been instrumental in setting up on their previous tour. Initially, he felt he had been side-lined, but his enthusiasm returned once he was selected as commanding officer of the hospital, in 1978. This was an appointment he loved, bringing as it did direct personal contact with the non-medical hierarchy of the British Army of the Rhine, but also the power and legal authority instilled in the position of a commanding officer. Due to his outstanding performance, he was promoted to brigadier and became deputy director medical services at 1st British Corps based at Bielefeld in West Germany. This headquarters was well recognised throughout the Army as being the testing ground for brigadiers from the regiments, corps and services with the potential for further advancement and was a hot bed of rivalries, backbiting and a generally highly competitive spirit. The wives added to this spirit of competitiveness at the Bielefeld Flower Club, referred to by all as the 'power club'. Audrey of course, thrived in this environment.

It was soon obvious that he had been picked out for further advancement and from Bielefeld he was promoted to major-general and became principal medical officer (as the title was at that time) to the United Kingdom Land Forces based at Wilton near Salisbury. It was during this tour that yet another attempt was being made by the then Government to make savings from the Defence Medical Services. Sir Henry Yellowlees, a former chief medical officer, was instructed to head a team to inspect the three medical services. Sir Cameron managed to convince Yellowlees and his team that having 35% empty beds in the military hospitals both in West Germany and in the UK was necessary to leave enough slack to absorb casualties in the event of an unexpected conflict.

There was at that time (and many before it) a very great push to try and amalgamate all the three medical services, and the first step in this direction was the establishment, for the first time since John Hunter, of a surgeon general for all three armed services. This appointment was also combined with the post of director general of the Army Medical Services, thereby saving the cost of a three star general. Sir Cameron was appointed to these posts in 1985 and served for three years. This was not perhaps his favourite period as he felt that he was unable to implement his ideas or will. Many in the Army felt he had bent over backwards in favour of the other two medical services, rather than appearing to be partisan in favour of the Army. He felt, as did many ex-commanding officers, that he had more powers during his period of command at Rinteln than he did as a three star general.

He was deservedly decorated by being appointed as The Queen's Honorary Surgeon in 1983. He was awarded a KBE in 1985, made a Commander of the Order of St John (also in 1985) and in 1991 he was presented with an honorary DSc from Glasgow University. In 1994, as chief medical officer of the Red Cross, a role he took on once he had left the Army, he was awarded the Queen's Badge of Honour.

On retirement, he and Audrey sold their house in Chislehurst in 1988 and moved to Kippax at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where they lived in a gorgeous cottage, again with a large garden transformed over the years by them both, in a manner rather similar to their garden in Rinteln. Many felt that the strip of water separating the Isle of Wight had sadly moved them a long way from the rest of the Services' medical fraternity, but they both appeared very content there. Occasional visits there were rendered all the more special by their continuing hospitality and Audrey's cooking.

Tragedy struck initially on 21 June 2014, when Audrey was admitted with intestinal obstruction to the hospital in Newport, Isle of Wight, and sadly died suddenly from complications of a colonic cancer she had suffered some 20 years earlier. Shortly after this, Sir Cameron fell downstairs in the cottage, breaking his hip and would appear to have suffered a pulmonary embolus a few days later. He died on 29 June 2014, aged 84. A very well-attended double funeral was arranged for them both.

Sir Cameron was a marvellous teacher, mentor and adviser, and was instrumental in guiding many of his juniors through to senior positions later in their careers. He also had the ability of becoming genuinely great friends with his juniors and many a delightful evening was spent over the bridge table, punctuated every now and then by Audrey's capacity to revoke, causing Sir Cameron to explode 'Awe Aud'! He will be remembered with deep affection by all who came under his wing and particularly by his junior surgeons.

R P Craig

Sources used to compile this entry: [Herald Scotland 28 September 2014 - accessed 25 November 2014; The Travelling Surgical Society - accessed 25 November 2014].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England