Alex Simpson-Smith was born in Honley near Huddersfield in 1900. At the age of three he sustained burns to his right hand for which he underwent several surgical operations which left him with a significant deformity and ultimately may have been a principal factor in stimulating his interest in the surgical management of burns.
He was educated at Worksop College and from there he won an exhibition to Selwyn College Cambridge to read Mathematics. However, on entry he changed his studies to medicine by way of the Natural Sciences Tripos and went on to complete his medical studies at Guy’s Hospital in October 1922. Despite his injury he was able to represent Guy’s Hospital and Surrey at rugby and later he was to work for two years at Guy’s under RP Rowlands before the latter noticed his deformity. Rowlands was then able to persuade Alex to allow him to undertake further surgical procedures which significantly improved his hand function. During this time Alex was able to develop his ambidexterity which became an additional asset later.
He qualified MRCS (Eng) LRCP (Lon) and MBChB (Cantab) in 1925. However, despite successful house appointments and a reputation as enthusiastic teacher he failed in his ambition to be elected to the honorary staff at Guy’s Hospital and he left in 1930. He subsequently spent a year as Richardson Research Fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and then was awarded a grant to undertake an investigation into experimental peptic ulceration at the Research Farm of the Royal College of Surgeons.
In May 1934 Alex was elected Honorary Surgeon to The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street and in November of the same year Assistant Surgeon to the West London Hospital. Although he found his work with children the most satisfying personally, he was totally dedicated to all his
patients. In the next five years up to the War he showed considerable ingenuity in devising new instruments and contributed to the literature with important articles published in the British Medical Journal and the British Journal of Surgery.
At the time of the Munich crisis Alex volunteered for service with the RAMC and at the outbreak of the War was given the rank of major. A few weeks before the War started he married Marguerite Davis whose father was a wealthy and philanthropic businessman with interests in Jersey and Durban in South Africa.
Alex was posted to North Africa in January 1941 and a year later, as the Surgical Division Officer he was in charge of 13 General Hospital in Tobruk with the rank of Lt Colonel. Here he found the hospital overwhelmed with casualties from the retreating 8th Army. Once the front was stabilised there was a lull in the fighting between February and May 1942 and he, together with his colleagues, were able to evaluate new treatments for burns. By late June it was clear that Tobruk was likely to fall. The final attack came on the 20 June 1942 and the town capitulated at dawn the following morning.
During the following two weeks whilst the prisoners and the wounded were being handed over to the Germans it was decided that the research results of the management of war time burn injuries should be sent to the authorities in Cairo. It fell to Alex Simpson-Smith to make the escape with three other colleagues to take these records in the last remaining ambulance. They left that night in July and were never heard of again.
His widow Marguerite generously contributed to the Alex Simpson-Smith Memorial Fund in his memory. The lectures commemorating his life commenced in 1948 and were held initially in the West London Hospital, one of the smaller London Teaching Hospitals on Hammersmith Broadway (now better recognised as the Sony Ericsson Building) and at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Following the closure of the West London Hospital the Memorial Lecture was moved to the Charing Cross Hospital and thus the association with Imperial College.
Marguerite and her sister Gwen moved to South Africa but continued to travel to London to attend the Memorial lectures every year whilst their health permitted until they were tragically killed in a car accident in 1992.
The Funds bequeathed by the generosity of the Simpson-Smith family continue to support the training of young surgeons in West London today. Each year applications are considered by the Simpson-Smith Memorial Committee for Travelling Fellowships to help support young surgeons in training (and more recently newly appointed consultants) to visit centres of excellence abroad to obtain specialist experience that may not be available to them in this country. Recipients of the awards are asked to return and give a brief account of their experiences before the delivery of the next annual lecture.
The committee is now considering additional ways that it may support surgeons in training in particular in the light of changes in surgical training in the UK.