Dr Thomas W Backhouse

Obituaries - Clinical oncology
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Dr Thomas W Backhouse

05/05/1922 to 01/07/2016
Memoir Author: 
Dr Michael Backhouse and Mr David W Backhouse

Thomas Wynter Backhouse was born in Horwich, Lancashire, the only son of Canon Thomas Backhouse, vicar of St Catherine’s Church and Mary, nee Wynter or Winter. Along with many other sons of the clergy he went to Dean Close School in Cheltenham and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps into the ministry. However after his ordinary certificate exams in the classics he decided that he wanted a career in medicine, so there was some rapid catching up required in the sciences. Despite evacuation of the school to Monkton Combe during the early years of the war he did well enough in his exams to earn a place to read Natural Sciences at Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1940.

In due course he moved to the Middlesex Hospital in central London to pursue clinical studies. While there he worked on hospital trains from the south coast and undertook fire spotting duties, during air raids, from the nurses’ home roof. This required the junior doctors to pass through the underground passages to the nurses’ home while the nurses, in their night attire passed the opposite way: A challenge for the matrons!

At University he continued with sports. While at school he had played for the AFA Public Schools XI earning a write up “although a head shorter than the Whalley Range centre forward, and easily brushed aside, [he] came again and again into the thick of the fray like a wasp at a picnic”. At Queens’ hockey was his main game, and in addition to college colours he earned a full Blue in 1942 for hockey. In London, later, he played for Southgate Hockey Club. His medical supervisor had suggested that he needed to choose between playing hockey every Saturday (an England trial was at stake) and studying if he wanted to pass his exams.

In the later stages of his training, so the story goes, after an operation in the theatre the senior surgeon suggested that his junior, Tom, take the theatre sister, Margaret Gratze, out for a date. With the help of a colleague’s sports car for trysts in Hyde Park, and war time price-limited dinners in Greek Street, the bonds of a lifetime were cemented and they married in February 1949. In an adventurous spirit they went to a ski resort in Norway for their honeymoon. 

After initial medical training he had the long slog of posts as a casualty officer and resident pathologist, further professional exams, and then joined the RAF for National Service as a doctor, rising to Squadron Leader. He eventually decided to specialise in the rapidly developing field of radiotherapy, spurred on by the surfeit of young surgeons leaving the armed forces at the end of the war. Tom began radiotherapy training under Prof Sir Brian Windeyer and Sir Stanford Cade. At this time he was heavily involved in the early use of the first Cobalt machine in the country at Mount Vernon. Oncologists from across the UK would visit the Saturday morning clinics he helped run, to see the results and treatment reactions of this new, and at the time, very exciting therapy. 

In August 1957 he obtained his first consultant post in the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in Coventry on a salary of £2,200 per annum. The family then moved from Ruislip to Kenilworth with a fourth child arriving a year later, making it four boys.

Tom became head of Department some ten years later and oversaw the development of a brand new cancer treatment facility at the new Coventry hospital at Walsgrave in 1970. He served on the management team of the Coventry hospitals during the 1974 reorganisation of the NHS. This was a time of rapid change in his field as new treatments became available and the specialism became oncology rather than radiotherapy. As early as 1963 he began reporting on the first British use of a new cytotoxic agent in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease through journals such as The Lancet, BMJ and Clinical Radiology. Tom’s national standing grew and in 1973/74 he served as President of the Radiology section of the Royal Society of Medicine. Most significantly he helped steer The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) through these challenging times, elected Vice-President (Radiotherapy and Oncology) from 1980 to 1982. During his career Tom also received a national Gold Merit Award, chaired the Radiotherapy Visiting Society, and served as an examiner for both the College of Radiographers and for Fellowships of the RCR, to which only two oncologists were elected each year.

As head of department his leadership inspired great loyalty and he created a departmental atmosphere that was consistently happy, friendly and ever positive. All staff members were treated with equal courtesy and their opinions always welcomed and respected.

However the outlook for some patients remained difficult and there was an increasing need to support patients and families during the later stages of cancer. In 1979 Tom and the then Bishop of Coventry, with others, launched a fundraising campaign, and in 1984 opened the Myton Hospice in Warwick in a converted children’s home. No doubt there are many patients and relatives in the area who remember him for his humane care and attention at very difficult times.

As though this were not enough he also became involved in the parents’ association for Warwick School, attended by all four sons, and he was a governor of the school from 1981 to 1983. He battled to improve the facilities for boarders at the school. Other local organisations benefited from his patient and considerate membership.

After retirement in 1987 he enjoyed more time for travel and relaxing. However he still wanted to improve the service for cancer patients at the Walsgrave hospital in Coventry. In the late 1970s the funding for the new cancer treatment centre had used up the available funds before the accompanying ward could be constructed. So he helped set up the Cancer Ward Appeal where his vision, experience, energy, and enormously wide circle of contacts was invaluable; £1.9 million was raised in 19 months and remarkably the ward completed in 1989.

He was one of a group of four Queens’ men who kept regular meetings together, with spouses, as long as they could. With the “walkers” he explored south Warwickshire, taking in pubs that served Hook Norton beer where possible. But as an antidote to relaxation children with families descended upon the house at short notice, or indeed no notice, as a temporary abode, and grandchildren based themselves “with Granny and Grandpa” while working or studying in the area. In 2006 the local Rotary Club nominated him Kenilworth Citizen of the Year.

Tom Backhouse died on 1 July 2016 survived by Margaret, his wife of 67 years, four sons, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.