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Biographical entry Mowlem, Arthur Rainsford (1902 - 1986)

MRCS and FRCS 1929; MB,ChB Otago 1924.

21 December 1902
Auckland, New Zealand
6 February 1986
Plastic surgeon


Arthur Rainsford Mowlem was born in Auckland, New Zealand on 21 December 1902, the son of Arthur Manwell Mowlem, a stipendiary magistrate and Alice Marion (née Beecroft). He claimed descent from Durandas, one of William the Conqueror's knights who was granted 2½ hides of land in the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. These lands were called de Moulhm and all descendants took that name which later became Mowlem. Rainsford inherited a large part of these lands from his great uncle, John Mowlem the founder of the famous building and contracting firm.

His early education was at Auckland Grammar School and at Knox College of Otago University. He studied law but later changed to medicine, qualifying in 1924 and undertaking house officer appointments in Auckland Hospital before entering general practice. He resolved to embark on a surgical career and having decided to come to England for postgraduate study worked his passage round Cape Horn as a ship's surgeon. He studied at the Middlesex Hospital under Professor Tim Yeates and Samson Wright for the primary Fellowship and after completing a house surgeon's appointment at the Seamen's Hospital, Greenwich, passed the final FRCS in 1929. He served as resident surgical officer at Queen Mary's Stratford where, during a royal visit by the Patron he was able to show the Prince of Wales where to have a cigarette and, a heavy smoker himself, to join him there.

He had planned to return to New Zealand to take up an orthopaedic post in Auckland, but before he could get a passage he was asked to take up a locum RSO appointment at Hammersmith Hospital. While he was there Sir Harold Gillies was given four beds for plastic surgery and Mowlem was fascinated by the potential of such surgery while working under his compatriot. Gillies soon realised the ability of his junior colleague and invited him to move with him when he went to a larger unit at St James's Hospital, Balham. Mowlem was subsequently appointed assistant medical officer in charge of the plastic unit of the London County Council at St Charles' Hospital, Ladbroke Grove, from 1933 to 1939. In 1940 he was appointed to the staff of the Middlesex Hospital and also established a unit at Hill End Hospital, St Alban's, working with Sir Harold Gillies under the aegis of St Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1940 he was elected Hunterian Professor, lecturing on the use of iliac chips from bone grafting in patients with mandibular defects and un-united fractures. Throughout the war years he dealt with many victims of the air raids at Hill End Hospital and participated in the early trials of penicillin. After the end of the war the unit moved to Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood and Mowlem transferred his appointment while retaining his post at the Middlesex and serving as adviser in plastic surgery to the Ministry of Health.

In the early post-war years he was called to attend Sir Winston Churchill during his premiership in connection with a burn of the hand. The Prime Minister had mistakenly laid his cigar on a box of matches and while attending upon him to dress the wound on Christmas morning Sir Winston, sitting up in bed with a brandy and cigar, gave him a vivid description of the battle of Omdurman; this included an account of Churchill being asked to provide a large donation of upper arm skin which was taken by the regimental medical officer without any anaesthetic as a homograft to be applied to a trooper's wound. He always had a badly scarred donor area.

After the war he was twice President of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons in 1950 and in 1959 and in the latter years was also President of the Second International Congress of Plastic Surgeons. His contribution to his specialty was recognised by the award of an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Trinity College, Hartford, USA, and an honorary Fellowship of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. His chief professional interest at both Mount Vernon and the Middlesex Hospital was in reconstructive operations to overcome unsightly defects resulting from the radical treatment of malignant disease and when asked to perform cosmetic surgery he always ensured there were valid reasons before embarking on such procedures. He was an outstanding teacher and during his career trained many juniors in the techniques of plastic surgery.

He retired completely at the age of sixty, sold his house at Great Missenden and moved to Malaga in Spain with his wife, Margaret West Harvey, whom he married in 1933. His new house was built of marble from a nearby quarry and he enjoyed the peaceful quiet surroundings and splendid views. He was a prodigious reader of journals on a wide variety of subjects and enjoyed classical music as well as visits to the ballet.

His wife pre-deceased him and he died at his home on 6 February 1986 aged 83, survived by two daughters and two grand-children.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 18 February 1986; Daily Telegraph 18 February 1986; Brit med J 1986, 292, 774 with portrait; Lancet 1986, 1, 629-630; Brit J plast surg 1987, 40, 102-103 with portrait; NZ med J 1986, 99, 252].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England