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Biographical entry Ashken, Michael Ralph Handley (1931 - 2016)

BSc London 1952; MRCS LRCP 1955; MB BS 1955; FRCS 1959; MS 1967.

14 May 1931
22 September 2016


Michael Handley Ashken was a consultant urologist at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Michael's father, Laurence Handley Ashken ('Laurie'), was one of five children born in the East End of London and his mother, Eva Ashken née Cameron, came from Glasgow. With support from his family, Laurie studied medicine at the Middlesex Hospital and, after qualification, became a general practitioner in London. Michael was one of two children; his sister, Tanya, was eight years younger and became a successful sculptor and silversmith living in Wellington, New Zealand. At the age of seven, Michael went to boarding school, four years at Dunhurst and then on to Bedales, where he excelled at all sports, especially cricket, which he enjoyed playing and watching whenever possible all his life. He started his pre-clinical training when he was 17 at the Middlesex Hospital at the time of the onset of the NHS. After his first MB, when he was awarded the Charles Bell prize in anatomy, he did a BSc in physiology, gaining a 2.2. During his clinical years, he won the Lyell gold medal in surgery and the Fitton prize in orthopaedics, as well as gaining honours in medicine in his finals when he qualified in November 1955.

His house jobs at the Middlesex were for Richard Sampson ('Dick') Handley, the breast surgeon and Edward Hart, the paediatrician. He worked hard during this job, learning anatomy and physiology, as well as attending the famous anatomy course held by Frank Stansfield, and passed the primary FRCS without having to attend the Royal College of Surgeons' course. He also won the Colin McKenzie prize in anatomy and physiology. He then did the necessary casualty job at Guildford, before going to Manchester as a senior house officer in a surgical rotation involving orthopaedics, urology, thoracic and general surgery.

This was followed in January 1959 by a registrar post at the Middlesex with John Howard Lees Ferguson and he passed the final FRCS exam in May 1959. Once he had achieved this, he was called up for military service and successfully managed to swap a posting to Germany to one in Malaya, where he gained a lot of clinical experience.

It was at a cricket match in 1950 that he first met Iris Platt, a South African, who had come to England to do her first MB at Guy's. She also did a BSc and qualified in March 1956. Mike and Iris were married in May 1956, when Michael was just about to start his second house job and Iris her first as a house physician in paediatrics at Guy's. Their daughter, Sharon, was born in Manchester in December 1957. Their son, Ian, was born in June 1960 in Malaya and Peter, their second son, was born in October 1964.

When Michael returned from Malaya at the end of his National Service, he was given the choice of which registrar job he would like at the Middlesex. He chose the one with Sir Eric Riches and Richard Turner-Warwick (with whom he had been at school at Bedales) for six months. He then did thoracic surgery with Thomas Holmes Sellors and John Rashleigh ('Jack') Belcher. Then, as was customary, he took two years out of surgery to do a MS thesis on 'A study of the renal vascular patterns in hypertension, chronic pyelonephritis and other diseases'. This was initially rejected, but when accepted he was awarded a Hunterian professorship in 1966.

In 1964, he was appointed as a senior registrar to Oswald Vaughan Lloyd-Davies and Richard Turner-Warwick. He was appointed as a consultant urologist to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in February 1968, but before starting he went to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for three months to work with Herbert Brendler and where he also met Elliot Leiter, who later became a great supporter of the section of urology at the Royal Society of Medicine.

With his appointment in Norwich as the first pure urologist, he set up what was to become an important urology department with Alan Green, which over the years was popular with trainees, many of whom subsequently became consultants in prestigious centres. He was at the forefront of certain aspects of urological techniques and popularised continent urinary diversion in collaboration with Nils Koch in Sweden and Ernst Zingg and Urs Studer in Bern. In 1982, he published a book on this subject (Urinary diversion Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, Springer-Verlag, 1982). He was appointed as clinical tutor in 1970 to the postgraduate medical centre as well as chairman of the consultant staff committee.

He was president of the section of urology at the Royal Society of Medicine from 1990 to 1991. He was the first president to take the section to North America for the winter meeting, which proved very popular and was supported by American urologists. The title of his presidential address was 'The changing fellowship', which drew on his experience as an examiner and senior examiner at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was president of the British Association of Urological Surgeons from 1994 to 1996. As a result of this and his involvement in examining, he travelled widely both nationally and internationally. He was also involved in setting up the Royal College of Surgeons' urology diploma. He was a member of a contemporary urological travel club for 25 years and the Grey Turner Surgical Travelling Club. In 2006, his family set up a charitable trust to celebrate his 75th birthday, to sponsor visiting lecturers to the local East Anglian annual urology meeting in Cambridge.

Michael reduced his clinical commitments in 1991 and finally retired in 1996. Sadly, his retirement years were dogged by medical problems, but he enjoyed his woodworking hobby of making and designing chairs. He always said it was a great hobby as wood does not bleed! He very much enjoyed his travels to the States and to the southern hemisphere. He continued to enjoy watching and encouraging the progress of his children and six grandchildren. He was able to celebrate his very happy marriage to Iris with their diamond wedding anniversary in May 2016. Michael Handley Ashken died on 22 September 2016. He was 85.

Peter Worth

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2016 355 5683 - accessed 25 May 2017; Trends in Urology and Men's Health November/December 2016 p.33 - accessed 25 May 2017].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England