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Biographical entry Powell, Henry Denis Whitwell (1919 - 2014)

MB ChB Cambridge 1944; FRCS 1953.

23 April 1919
11 August 2014
Orthopaedic surgeon


Henry Denis Whitwell Powell ('Denis') was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in High Wycombe and Amersham. The middle child and only son of Henry and Margaret Powell, he was born on 23 April 1919 and brought up with his two sisters Celia and Rosalind at Monkton Combe near Bath, in a large house with seven staff and good, tall trees for climbing in the garden.

He and Celia shared a governess until he went to boarding school aged eight. Brought up in a Christian family, he regularly attended the school chapel in term time and visited a whole range of churches in the holidays. He was clearly keen on and good at sport. He enjoyed inspirational teaching from Bill Wilson, his biology teacher. Trips to his aunt meant going out with his GP uncle Cecil, visiting patients on Exmoor. Denis waited outside in the car, but he said this experience helped him decide to do medicine.

Cambridge came next, an expansion of his world. Here he met Leonore Elisita Trench ('Leo'). Although Denis moved on to Edinburgh for his clinical studies, he stayed in contact with Leo and they became engaged in 1943. He used to tell stories of the times he cycled between either Bath or London and Edinburgh at the beginning and end of term, stopping in youth hostels or with friends and family on the way, taking roughly a week for each journey.

In 1943 he worked through the summer in Hull and wrote a thank you letter after he left to his consultant, who responded, giving a delightful and recognisable picture of Denis. The consultant wrote: 'The hospital now is a remarkably peaceful place. The deathly silence of the corridors at night is most marked, no more are we uplifted by a melodious baritone voice raised in song, not even the mildest yodel can be heard. It is almost like a hospital. I'm not sure I have got your address right. I have tried a microscope on your writing in vain!'

Denis and Leo were married on 3 February 1945 and spent three weeks together before he was called up. Their first daughter, Margaret, was born in December 1945, although she was not seen by Denis until he came home from India in June 1947. Janet was born in 1949, John in 1951, with Clare arriving in 1954.

Denis joined the RAF and worked on flying stations in the UK. He took decisions about prisoners of war arriving back from the Continent, and whether they should be allowed to go home, which they were longing to do. He hated having to tell them 'No, you cannot go home as you need to be hospitalised' and 'Yes, you need to be de-loused again'. The other job he hated was having to take decisions about operational aircrew who were no longer fit to fly. While during the First World War what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder was called 'shell shock', in the Second World War it gained the more blaming label of 'lack of moral fibre'. He hated having to give this label to men, but this was the only way to release them from active flying service. In the summer of 1945 he flew to India, and was there for most of the next two years.

When he left the RAF in the summer of 1947 he struggled to find work, as he was competing with a flood of demobbed doctors chasing too few jobs. He eventually found jobs as a demonstrator and in house posts, and was excited by being part of the new NHS. He began his orthopaedic career, gaining his fellowship in 1953 after several attempts. The next milestone was 1956, when he moved to registrar and senior registrar posts in Manchester. At last, in 1960, he got a consultant job covering High Wycombe and Amersham hospitals, and the family moved to Cryers Hill on the edge of the Chilterns, roughly between the two towns.

He did not often talk to his family about his work, but on the rare occasions he did, he would tell us how he cared for babies with spina bifida and thalidomide-affected children. We saw him at work on Christmas Day, when we always went with him to the hospital to visit. It was very clear he was loved by his nurses, whom he teased and was teased back by remorselessly - his way of making a more human connection than hospital roles often allowed. At the same time, he was also very clearly head of the team. He was utterly committed to his work and sincerely respected other peoples' contributions to the work of the team.

Kim Cheetham, a paediatrician, writes: 'I soon discovered Denis was a marvellous colleague, very supportive of me, when I was new. We were always able to work together to make an effective treatment plan. He developed a system of treating young infants with broken legs without the need for hospital admission. This meant babies still very dependent on their mothers were not separated from them for the six weeks that was standard practice at the time. A quiet, highly competent man, who had high standards of personal practice that were very widely admired, and, of course, copied.'

Another cause that engaged him was the care of patients who had undergone electro-convulsive therapy and had sustained femoral fractures during their seizures: this led him to research appropriate muscle relaxants.

When walking around High Wycombe with his family, people would came up to him and say 'I worked in theatre with you in the 70s' or 'You did my hip in 82'. Their gratitude, and their pleasure at seeing him, delighted him.

Much of his working life was before we had seat belts and before motorcyclists wore helmets. So his work included a lot of road traffic accidents. He struggled with breaking bad news to families, and with the operations where he worked for hours to try to save a badly hurt young motorcyclist, but still had to tell the parents at the end that the young person had died.

He worked long hours, with full clinics and theatres, adding the hours on call and at the weekends to an already unlimited working week. He stayed at hospital until the work was done and his family never knew when he would come home. He showed great determination to do his best, was meticulously careful, and had real commitment to both the quality of his work and to his individual patients. The emotional demands of mending damaged bodies were enormous. He recovered by mowing the extensive lawns and gardening, and sometimes by eating alone and retreating to the study, where he wrote notes on every operation he did. There were significant costs to this way of working, both to him in his tiredness and in his absence from family life. So holidays became very important.

The family youth hostelled, camped and caravanned. They walked and climbed the hills, and he ran down scree slopes, starting little avalanches and terrifying his children. He was a very good photographer of landscapes and occasionally included his family!

Denis loved to combine work and travelling. He went to Denmark and Sweden to study what they had learned from a polio outbreak and to apply this to a 1958 UK outbreak. Working in northern Nigeria fascinated him. He was a professor in Sudan for a term, accompanied by Leo (and Clare joined them for a holiday), examined students in Libya, worked for the Eritrean People's Liberation Front in their struggle for independence from Ethiopia, which involved operating in an underground hospital and, last but not least, in Botswana, where, as well as treating people, he also operated on a lioness with a broken leg.

Retirement meant more time and New Zealand was short of orthopaedic specialists in the late 1980s. Denis and Leo went three times to Dunedin, where he was known as 'the golden oldie', and once to Invercargill. They never repeated a journey, managing to cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway, visit family in western Canada and ex-colleagues in India.

There was always music in his life. Denis listened, he sang and he played. One of his early memories was listening to his dad in the Bath choir, singing the Messiah every year at Christmas. Listening to good music gave him real joy.

Denis started singing in the school chapel choir, and loved being part of the annual Gilbert and Sullivan school production. He was in choirs all his adult life, including the BBC Northern Singers in Manchester and, in his final years, the Humberstone Choral Society in Leicester. Singing for him was a way of expressing feeling, which was so much harder in words. As a youngster he played the cello and then passed his instrument on to his daughter, Margaret.

Denis was a man who initially could look stern, especially to a child, and then came the twinkle, the tease and the laugh. His feet were firmly rooted in valuing the old. 'You can't throw that away, I bought it in India' he said of a decrepit bag spotted during the clearing of his home in 2007. The bag was at least 60 years old. He could be stubborn, always doing things in his own time, and unaware of the impact of this on other people. Denis could express his feelings very strongly, but not always in words. This could make communication with him difficult and sometimes impossible. Under stress, whether from work or family matters, he tended to withdraw and not see the pain this caused others and was often not able to engage in the discussions that, sometimes, can reduce pain.

Finally, his faith, which was centrally important to him, but about which he rarely talked; it was a private matter, but he had great certainty. It was displayed in his work and his caring for his patients, as well as in his wider life. He loved visiting churches and cathedrals, whether ruined or still in use.

Leo died in 2004 and, after three years, Denis moved from High Wycombe to Leicester, close to his middle daughter. He was able to live alone initially, but in time needed increasing support and moved into a care home for the last three and a half years of his life. He died on 11 August 2014, aged 95.

His memorial service was attended by family and friends, representing many aspects of his life, from a lady who had been present at his wedding and a physio who had worked with him in High Wycombe, to four of his 10 great-grandchildren.

Clare Garside

The Royal College of Surgeons of England