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Biographical entry King, Ambrose (1902 - 2000)

TD; KStG; MRCS 1924; FRCS 1929.

19 April 1902
25 September 2000
Seaford, East Sussex


Ambrose King was born in Hackney on 19 April 1902, the second son of the owner of a steam laundry business in the East End of London. His mother was the eldest of the five daughters of an Irish immigrant, and had trained as a teacher. He was educated, along with Alfred Hitchcock and the future Cardinal Heenan, at the Jesuit College of St Ignatius, in Stamford Hill, a school renowned for not sparing the rod. During the first world war, Ambrose and his brother had a variety of duties, including lighting and de-scaling the factory boiler, and driving the horse-drawn delivery van.

He studied the basic sciences at Queen Mary College and went on to the London Hospital in October 1919, where he played rugby, was taught by Russell Howard and followed his brother (A C King) into taking the primary FRCS as a student. His first house appointment was in the bacteriology department under William Bulloch, one of the leading microbiologists in Europe, who had worked with Lister on the sterilisation of catgut. He was house physician to Lord Dawson and house surgeon to Sir James Walton, whose registrar was McNeill Love. He passed the final FRCS from a post in the VD department, which was combined with that of registrar at Poplar Hospital.

Ambrose found himself in sole charge of the department, which dealt with gonorrhoea and its complications, nominally under two genito-urinary surgeons who were seldom seen. When a full-time consultant was appointed in their place, Ambrose was invited to stay on as chief assistant at an attractive salary. The subject was, however, unpopular; he sought advice from Bulloch who replied, "King, if you take up this work you will have an interesting life and your future will depend on human nature. Human nature will never let you down."

Over the next few years, Ambrose established his department with the highest standards of compassion and clinical care. This was the time when the first sulphonamides were being tested, but treatment for gonorrhoea and syphilis was protracted and largely ineffectual. King was soon the leading venereologist in London; he visited the United States to learn the new hyperthermia technique for the complications of gonorrhoea and syphilis (undergoing the treatment himself in the process). The London County Council refused to buy the necessary equipment, but the London Hospital did, and soon the new treatment was in full swing.

Ambrose was for a time clinical assistant to Barrington at St Peter's. He had joined the Territorial Army and when the second world war had begun he was appointed specialist in venereal diseases for Southern Command, in charge of the VD section at Netley. Soon his patients occupied more than 80 per cent of the hospital. Before long a purpose-built annexe was erected for Lieutenant Colonel King's patients which other soldiers, from many nations, nicknamed 'The College'. He remained in charge until the end of the war, was not honoured by the British, but was awarded the Bronze Star by the United States.

After the war, Ambrose returned as director of the VD clinic at the London (now the Royal London) and was later appointed to the London Lock Hospital. He began the task of rebuilding his former private practice. At that time Ambrose staffed his department with bright young physicians and surgeons, from whom he demanded the highest standards for his patients, but gave plenty of spare time to study for higher degrees; in this way he attracted staff of the highest calibre, and in return they learned much from him. He married and had one daughter, Mary.

Ambrose retired from the London in 1967, but continued in private practice and at Moorfields, travelling extensively on behalf of the World Health Organization - including detailed tours of brothels and massage parlours in the Far East. He was co-author with Claude Nicol of the standard textbook Venereal diseases (London, Cassell, 1964) and joined his brother in writing Strong medicine (Churchman, 1990), a kind of dual autobiography, in which his delightful sense of humour shines through, as does his deeply felt Catholic piety. He died at Seaford, East Sussex, on 25 September 2000.

Sources used to compile this entry: [London Hosp Gazette 1991 74(5) 9-10].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England