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Biographical entry Bowden, Ruth Elizabeth Mary (1915 - 2001)

OBE; MRCS 1940; FRCS 1973; MB BS London 1940; DSc; LRCP 1940.

21 February 1915


One of the leading anatomists of her day, Ruth Bowden was born in India on 21 February 1915. Her father was a missionary, and her aunt, Edith Brown, had founded the Christian Medical College in Ludhiana, Punjab. As was usual, Ruth was sent back to England at the age of eight to be educated and to avoid the health risks. She stayed with an aunt and was brought up in a family of cousins, one of whom, Ronald Keays, who was later to become secretary of the Royal Society, fostered her interest in science. She was sent to St Paul's School for Girls, London, from which she went to the London School of Medicine for Women, at the Royal Free Hospital. After qualifying in 1940, she did house posts at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, and then went to work with Seddon in Oxford from 1942 to study peripheral nerve injuries. These experiences led to a Rockefeller fellowship to Johns Hopkins and a Hunterian Professorship in 1950.

Ruth succeeded Mary Lucas-Keene as professor of anatomy at the Royal Free School of Medicine in 1951 and held that post with distinction for 30 years. She was a stimulating lecturer, keen to show how anatomical facts were related to function, and took a personal interest in each student. Among many contributions to research, those on peripheral nerve healing and the pathology of striated muscle were outstanding. She was invited to examine for the College in the conjoint and FRCS, visited eight overseas universities, was Chairman and later vice-president of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, vice-president of the Linnaean Society, the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and was WHO consultant in anatomy to the University of Khartoum. Her contributions were recognised by election to the FRCS in 1973, and her appointment as OBE. Ruth never retired. She lectured at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School from 1980 to 1983, and was appointed Sir William Collins Professor at the College in 1985, where she set about with great enthusiasm to reform the teaching of anatomy for surgeons, introducing a whole new section to illustrate the images provided by computerised tomography.

Ruth was a keen supporter of the Grand Priory of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, of which she was a dame and hospitaller. She was engaged in re-equipping a hospital in St Petersburg, and cajoled the surgeons she encountered in the College to give her equipment that had been replaced or had passed its sell by date. She was regularly to be seen examining the skip parked in the front drive of the College, rescuing books that had been discarded from the library. Orphan children in Poland received a big consignment of teddy bears, carefully repaired and washed by Ruth. Leprosy colonies in India were visited, and she advised on their peripheral nerve disorders. She was vice-president of Riding for the Disabled in the UK, and also advised on this in Romania. For many years she was closely involved with the pioneer hospice, St Joseph's, in Hackney.

Ruth was also keenly interested in medical history, and was archivist of the collection of records of the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. She joined the Medical Women's Federation in 1948, was national President from 1981 to 1982, and represented them on the Women's National Commission from 1984 to 1987.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England