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Biographical entry Somervell, Theodore Howard (1890 - 1975)

OBE 1953; MRCS 1915; FRCS 1920; MA MB BCh Cambridge 1920; LRCP 1915.

16 April 1890
23 January 1975
General surgeon and Mountaineer


Francis Younghusband (1938) summarised this life as follows: 'Somervell is no mean mountaineer: he is one of five who have reached the 28,000 feet level. He is no mean painter: his picture of Everest adorns the walls of the Royal Geographical Society's House. He is no mean musician: he has transcribed Tibetan songs and played them in England. He is no mean surgeon: he served as a surgeon in the Great War. He is no mean lover of men: he has given up a lucrative practice and devoted his life to alleviating the bodily sufferings of Indians and putting new spirit into them.'

This adventurous spirit in a man began in the Lake District. Howard Somervell was born on 16 April 1890, the eldest child of William, a well-known footwear manufacturer in Kendal, and his wife Florence (Howard). The Lake District instilled in him an enthusiasm for hill walking and his mother inspired him by her love of music. It was a passion which impelled him to break bounds at Rugby and later, when on holiday in Rye, Sussex, to bicycle repeatedly to the Queen's Hall, London, to hear Beethoven at the Promenade concerts, each time a round distance of 130 miles! He was head of science at school and showed considerable ability on the rugger field. He went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he took a double first class honours in the Natural Science Tripos. It was here that he began as a lay preacher.

He already showed promise on Swiss and British mountains while he completed his medical years at University College Hospital, London. When war broke out he enlisted immediately, serving as a Captain 1914-1919. He found himself in a Casualty Clearing Station in France and experienced the carnage of the battle of the Somme, July 1916. For two days the procession of nearly 10,000 wounded, streams of motor ambulances a mile long, a field of 5 to 6 acres covered with stretchers made a lasting impression on him. He was mentioned in despatches. In 1919-20 he was trained as an orthopaedic specialist in Liverpool under Sir Robert Jones and then returned to UCH to become Wilfred Trotter's house surgeon, registrar and assistant.

Somervell's ability as a mountaineer lay in his immense strength (he once climbed 32 Alpine peaks in a six weeks' holiday) and poise, and he thought of mountaineering as the essence of all the arts he practised. In 1922, General Bruce chose him to be a member of the Everest expedition and two years later, of the 1924 attempt. It was in the 1924 expedition that Somervell earned fame for his courageous rescue of four Sherpa porters marooned on the North Col. The anxious men had to be persuaded to cross a steep slope of snow above a great crevasse. Somervell climbed obliquely up the slope, secured on the rope by Norton and Mallory. Twenty feet from the top, the rope gave out. Somervell untied, went on unsecured and grabbed each porter in turn, bringing him to safety. On 2 June, 1924, Somervell and Norton began their assault up the north face reaching 28,000 feet, 'a couple of crocks' (Somervell afterward wrote) 'slowly and breathlessly struggling up, with frequent rests and a lot of puffing and blowing and coughing. Most of the coughing and probably most of the delay, came from me'. Half a mile from the summit Somervell's throat became so painful and obstructed that he was obliged to stop. Indeed he felt he was going to die and with one almighty shove with his arms around his chest he expelled a bloody slough of mucous membrane (predating the Heinlich manoeuver by some 50 years). Norton was left to continue for a short distance until he too was defeated. The two had a terrible descent, with Norton half snowblind.

On the expeditions Somervell executed some fine paintings and in between the two composed music for the film Everest. It was also after the first expedition that he volunteered to be a surgeon in the London Missionary Society's Neyyoor hospitals. He was appalled by the physical suffering and misery in rural India and his simple Christian faith and the need of India's people turned him from his contemplated career as a London consultant at UCH. The growth of the Neyyoor Medical Mission was a monument to his leadership, both in surgery and organisation. He and his colleagues dealt with 200,000 cases a year performing more than 15,000 operations. In Southern India, where gastroduodenal ulceration was so prevalent, he became a real master in the field of abdominal surgery. He became noted for a particular operation in the treatment of haematemesis and with the prevalence of broken spines and multiple fractures from falls from toddy palm trees he became an outstanding orthopaedic surgeon. Somervell retired from his medical missionary service in 1949 and was greatly in demand as a speaker to university students. He was President of the Alpine Club from 1961 to 1964. He was appointed OBE in 1953.

In 1925 he married Margaret Hope Simpson, daughter of Sir James Hope Simpson, a Liverpool banker. Together they formed a great team for the work in the medical mission field working at Neyyoor until 1949 and thereafter at Vellore until 1961. They had three sons, two of whom became medical missionaries in South India before returning to the UK, one as consultant surgeon, the other as general practitioner. Somervell died at Ambleside, on 23 January 1975, aged 84 years.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1975, 1, 462; The Times 25 January 1975].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England