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Biographical entry Matthews, David Napier (1911 - 1997)

CBE 1976; OBE 1946; MRCS 1935; FRCS 1936; MCh Cambridge 1937; MD 1938; LRCP 1935.

7 July 1911
Bromley, Kent
25 August 1997
General surgeon and Plastic surgeon


David Matthews was a distinguished consultant plastic surgeon based in London. He was born in Bromley, Kent, on 7 July 1911. His father, Harold Hamilton Matthews, was a surveyor. His mother, Jeanie née Johnstone, together with a governess, educated him until the age of 10. He won an exhibition from the Leys School, Cambridge, to read foreign languages at Queen's College, Cambridge, but once there changed his mind in favour of medicine. He represented the university at hockey, before winning a major scholarship to Charing Cross Hospital. There he won the Llewellyn scholarship and qualified in 1935, and the next year became the youngest Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

After house jobs at Charing Cross, he went to the Westminster Hospital as chief assistant from 1936 to 1941, where Sir Stanford Cade told him, "I make big holes: go and learn how to fill them." This he did from Sir Harold Gillies, Tommy Kilner and Sir Archibald McIndoe. In 1939 he went as McIndoe's first assistant to help establish the famous plastic surgery unit at East Grinstead, spending three days a week there and four at the Westminster.

He joined the RAFVR in 1941 and ran a 60-bed plastic surgery unit at RAF Halton, where he found the men of the free Polish Air Force quite uncontrollable patients. In 1946 he was demobilised with the rank of Wing Commander and the OBE. He had also found time to carry out important work on the storage of skin grafts, working with Dame Honor Fell at the Strangeways Laboratories in Cambridge, as well as to write a textbook The surgery of repair (Oxford, Blackwell, 1942).

After the war, he was appointed to University College Hospital in 1946, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in 1947 and to the Royal Masonic Hospital in 1952. At the time there were no specialist surgeons at UCH, he was therefore appointed as consultant general surgeon and, although his interest was plastic surgery, he did continue to undertake general surgery for many years. Indeed he was a renowned teacher of surgery in general and his senior student ward rounds were always packed to capacity, particularly just before finals.

Ambidextrous, he was nicknamed 'Two Hands Matthews'. His main interest lay in the management of cleft lip and palate and craniofacial deformities. Never afraid of innovation, he went to Paris to learn Tessier's pioneering techniques for children with prematurely fused skull bones, and returned to do the first 55 cases in Britain. He was an Hunterian Professor three times, the McIndoe lecturer, and the Gillies lecturer and gold medallist of the Association of Plastic Surgeons in 1977. He was civilian consultant to the Royal Navy and adviser in plastic surgery to the Ministry of Health.

Physically striking, with intense blue eyes, he had an obsessive sense of duty. He married Betty Davies in 1940. Betty was a gifted artist who illustrated his books: they had two sons, one of whom, Richard, became a consultant plastic surgeon, and a daughter who trained as a nurse. There are nine grandchildren. He had a busy retirement as the public spokesman for the British Heart Foundation and published a history of the organisation, but also painted, fly-fished and made pottery. He died from carcinoma of the colon on 25 August 1997.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 24 September 1997; BMJ 1997 315 1626, with portrait; Br J Plast Surg 1997 50 662-664, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England