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Biographical entry Simmons, George Herbert Ashby (1911 - 2001)

MRCS 1938; FRCS 1947; LRCP 1938.

Born
31 August 1911
Hackney
Died
8 February 2001
Occupation
General surgeon

Details

George Herbert Ashby 'Bertie' Simmons was a surgeon in Guernsey. He was born on 31 August 1911 in Hackney, where his father, George Wickham Simmons, was a bank clerk and a Congregational lay preacher. His mother was Margaret née Offer. The family moved to Mill Hill and he went to Mill Hill School, which had a non-conformist tradition. When his father offered him the choice of becoming a parson or a doctor, he chose the latter, as his older sister Catherine had done. She later became a medical missionary in China and Thailand. Bertie studied medicine at St Bartholomew's.

When war started in 1939, he was house surgeon at the Royal United Hospital, Bath. He later joined the RAMC. Within a year he was posted to North Africa, as a medical officer to a gunner unit, where he was captured and spent a year in a prisoner of war camp in Italy, passing the time by studying for the FRCS. When Italy capitulated and the Allies were advancing, the Germans put the prisoners in a cattle train bound for Germany. Bertie was one of a number who took the opportunity of escaping after unscrewing a grid with a broken knife. Providentially, he soon fell in with a gunner officer, John Poole-Hughes, who had also jumped from the same train and they sustained one another through four difficult weeks in the Apennine mountains, with much help from the local people, until they eventually met up with the advancing Allied Army. At one point they slept in an enormous Italian bed: Bertie ended a sleepless night covered in flea bites, but John Poole-Hughes was spared, "no doubt", Bertie explained "because he was on the way to becoming a bishop" (Poole-Hughes later became Bishop of Llandaff and wrote a fascinating account of the escape).

On his return to England, Bertie worked until the end of the war in an Army orthopaedic unit in Bangor, Northern Ireland, where he saw enough shattered limbs to cure him of his original ambition to become an orthopaedic surgeon.

After the war, he passed the FRCS, did a number of junior jobs, including that of surgical registrar to Manchester Royal Infirmary. In 1955 he was appointed consultant surgeon.

His wife Fay Beswick, a fellow house surgeon, had been dogged by ill health since early childhood and was advised against having children. In fact she bore Mary, and they adopted Jenny. The family was complete, but the Manchester climate with the fogs of those days was much against her. For this reason, when the Plaiderie group practice in Guernsey required a surgeon, Bertie applied and brought his family there in 1962. Sadly her health continued to deteriorate and she died in 1968 at the age of 40.

In Guernsey at that time the group practices staffed the hospital and provided the specialists; a system very different from the NHS, but Bertie saw how well it worked for the Island, and became one its greatest champions. One of his important contributions was a careful survey of seriously ill patients over a period of six months, which proved conclusively that there was a need for an intensive care unit in the new hospital extension. Its benefit has been proved a thousand times over since it was built.

Following his retirement in 1975, he continued to do good work in the field of medical boards, where he was meticulous in giving a carefully considered opinion. He threw himself into woodwork, winemaking and sailing. He died on 8 February 2001 from oesophageal cancer.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2001 323 456, with portrait; information from John Dickson].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England