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Biographical entry Oatley, Harold Albert (1912 - 1987)

MB BS London 1936; FRCS 1948.

20 June 1912
12 January 1987
Highcliffe-on-Sea, Dorset
Orthopaedic surgeon


The following obituary was published in Volume 7 of Plarr's Lives of the Fellows.

Harold Albert Oatley received his medical education at University College Hospital, qualifying MB BS in 1936. After junior posts at University College Hospital and in the Anatomy Department at Cambridge, he worked successively at the Royal Masonic Hospital, the Miller General Hospital, Greenwich and at Lewisham Hospital before he became orthopaedic surgeon at Whipps Cross Hospital in 1950. Here he remained until he retired from hospital practice in 1974. He continued in private practice in Harley Street until 1980, when he retired to Highcliffe-on-Sea, Dorset, where he died on 12 January 1987.

The following obituary was submitted in 2014.

Harold Oatley was born on 20 June 1912 above a bakery in Pimlico, London, which his parents owned and ran. He died aged 74 of a cerebral haemorrhage on 12 January 1987 at the house to which he had retired, in Highcliffe-on-Sea, Dorset.

As a schoolboy, Harold Oatley won a scholarship to Alleyn's School, Dulwich, and then another one to University College Hospital, London, where he obtained his MB BS degree in 1936. In 1937 he worked as a demonstrator in the anatomy department at Cambridge University, and on 11 December of that year married Winifred Speaight, with whom he would have a son, Keith, and a daughter, Jocelyn.

In the middle of 1941, Harold Oatley joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, in which he attained the rank of captain. He was attached to the Reconnaissance Regiment of the 52nd (Lowland) Division which, for the larger part of the Second World War, trained in mountain warfare in the Cairngorms, in Scotland. Late in October 1944 the division crossed the Channel and in early November they fought the Germans in Flushing (Vlissingen, in Holland). The joke was that, having trained in mountain warfare, their first battle was below sea level. In 1945, they crossed the Rhine, and at the end of the war they had reached Bremen.

During the push through Germany, the unit to which Harold Oatley belonged was close to the British armoured division that liberated Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945. He was invited by a medical colleague to visit the camp, and on 18 April he did so. He kept a diary of his war-time experiences, and about Belsen he wrote: 'I little thought to see such damning evidence of Man's inhumanity to Man.'

Before and after the war, Harold Oatley worked as a house surgeon and registrar in London, including at St Olave's, Greenwich, the Royal Masonic (although he was not a mason) and Lewisham hospitals. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1948. In 1950 he was appointed as a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Whipps Cross Hospital, London, where he worked until he retired from hospital practice in 1974. Then, until 1980 when he retired completely and moved to Dorset, he continued to see patients in Harley Street.

Perhaps Harold Oatley's most remarkable accomplishment was to be among the first, perhaps actually the first, in Britain to reattach severed upper limbs. He had read of reattachments being performed in the USA and China, and thought that such operations would be possible for orthopaedic surgeons in England. On 15 December 1965, a 17-year-old man had crashed his motor-cycle into a safety barrier, and had torn off his right arm just below the elbow. With the general surgeon, Louis de Jode, assisting, Harold Oatley reattached the arm during an eight-hour operation. In the next days, gas gangrene and sepsis set in. The limb had to be re-amputated, and the patient made an uneventful recovery. Three months later, on 10 March 1966, another patient was admitted. He had sawn off the main part of his right hand in a sawmill where he worked. The operation to reattach his hand began an hour and 20 minutes after the accident, and took seven-and-a-half hours. The patient recovered. After physiotherapy he was able to flex his fingers and oppose his thumb. His reattached hand was of more use to him than an artificial one. A film was taken of the first operation, and is to be donated to the Wellcome Library. Harold Oatley wrote a draft of a paper on the limb re-attachments for a medical journal, but never submitted it.

Before the war, Harold Oatley founded the Chinese Children's Club in Limehouse in London, to foster social contacts among the children of Chinese seamen who had settled and married English women. After the war, until his retirement, he continued to run the club for these children's children. In adulthood, some of the club's original members became close friends, and formed one of Harold Oatley's primary social networks. The other social group to which he was closely attached was that of the Methodist Church in Loughton, a London suburb on the edge of Epping Forest, where he lived when he worked at Whipps Cross Hospital. His Christianity was at the centre of his life, and was a comfort to him when his wife Winifred died, on 5 November 1981, not long after they had moved to Highcliffe.

Although Harold Oatley would modestly have disclaimed any such recognition - he thought of himself, as he says in the draft of his paper about limb reattachment as 'an ordinary orthopaedic surgeon'- he achieved a great deal. A memorial certificate presented to him by the Whipps Cross Hospital medical secretary Ethel Scott and Sir Arthur Porritt on his retirement speaks of him as 'a meticulous surgeon with a quiet unassuming manner … a valuable asset, and he has maintained a good relationship with members of the staff, and the trust and affection of his patients.' Noshir Antia (who became the most prominent plastic surgeon in India) had worked for him as a registrar at Whipps Cross Hospital, where they became close friends. He wrote of Harold Oatley's 'sincerity, his humility, getting joy out of doing simple things well … his deep love for his fellow beings for whom he did so much.'

Keith Oatley

Sources used to compile this entry: [Personal diaries of Harold Oatley; George Blake Mountain and flood: the history of the 52nd (lowland) division 1939-1946. Glasgow, Jackson, Son & Company, 1950; unpublished paper by Harold Oatley 'Reattachment of severed upper limbs' 1966; certificate on retirement of Harold Oatley in 1974 signed by Ethel Scott and Sir Arthur Porritt; letter from Noshir Antia, 15 February 1987; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England