Dawson, Bertrand Edward, Viscount Dawson of Penn 1864-1945, physician, was born at Croydon 9 March 1864, the fourth son and fifth child of Henry Dawson, architect, by his wife, Frances, daughter of Obadiah Wheeler, of Perivale. He was educated at St. Paul's School and University College, London, where he lived at the Hall when Henry Morley [qv.] was principal. As an undergraduate he was influenced by the work of Charles Bradlaugh [qv.] and T. H. Huxley [qv.] and began to show that interest in social and political problems which persisted throughout his life.
In 1884 Dawson entered the London Hospital as a medical student and, after some early failures in the examination hall, obtained the degree of B.Sc. in 1888 and qualified in 1890, becoming M.R.C.S. (England) in the same year, M.D. and M.R.C.P. (London) in 1893, and F.R.C.P. in 1903. In these early days he earned his living through hospital appointments and as a lecturer. In 1896, when he became assistant physician at the London Hospital, he launched himself as a private consultant. Remembering these years of struggle, with few opportunities for research, in later life he took an active part in the foundation of a postgraduate medical school at London University
By the close of the century Dawson's advice was being sought on diseases of the lymphatic gland, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastro-intestinal diseases. Extending his work in this field, he produced a paper on The Microbic Factor in Gastro-Intestinal Disease and its Treatment (Lancet, 29 April 1911), and in 1912 gave an address before the British Medical Association on Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Medical Treatment of Gastric Ulcer. He became full physician at the London Hospital in 1906. In the next year he was appointed physician-extraordinary to King Edward VII, a post which he retained with King George V until 1914 when he became physician-in-ordinary. In 1911 he was appointed K.C.V.O.
Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Dawson, who had become commandant of the 2nd London General Hospital in the Territorial Army in 1908, went to France as consulting physician with the acting rank of major-general. He attended the King at the time of his accident at Hesdigneul in 1915 and remained in France until 1919. Although his time was largely occupied with hospital organization he made use of the medical experience of war to write on paratyphoid, trench-fever infective gastro-enteritis, and influenza. In co-operation with (Sir) William Errington Hume and (Sir) Samuel Phillips Bedson he engaged in a study of infective jaundice and Weil's disease which culminated in a paper with W. E. Hume in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine (vol. x, 1916-17), another with W. E. Hume and S. P. Bedson in the British Medical Journal (15 September 1917), and an address on Spirochaetosis Icterohaemorrhagica before the section of medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine (Lancet, 2 November 1918).
The years in France convinced Dawson that while the diseases of invasion were receding before the advance of medical knowledge the diseases of stress would multiply with the quickening pace of life. Among the fighting men cases of shock were frequent and he experimented with their treatment in clinics established at Wimereux, Étaples, Rouen, and Étretat. This early attempt at rehabilitation was imperfectly understood and at times vigorously criticized. But the results were promising.
The war revealed also that the British standard of physical fitness was low. In Dawson's opinion it was going to become as much the duty of the medical profession to promote national health as to cure sickness in the individual. In 1918 he developed this idea in the Cavendish lectures before the West London Medico-Chirurgical Society on The Nation's Welfare: the Future of the Medical Profession. As a result he was drawn into the government consultations concerning the formation of a Ministry of Health and in 1919 he was made chairman of the consultative council on medical and allied services set up by Christopher (later Viscount) Addison, the first minister of health.
This committee produced in 1920 the Dawson report which foreshadowed a national health service. Subsequently the proposals of this report were modified and developed but Dawson held fast to its basic assumption: that any health service must be centred on the medical profession and the hospital services with the teaching hospitals at the head. Dawson was opposed to a full-time salaried service, believing that doctors should work in conditions of freedom. But he was equally anxious that the new needs of the century should be recognized by the profession assuming its share of responsibility for future developments. He held that success depended upon the steady growth of co-operation between the doctor in practice and the officers of the new public service. He would have liked the Ministry of Health to be released from the numerous cares of the Local Government Board, but to his lasting disappointment this was held to be administratively impossible. In any case, retrenchment was in the air; the report was pigeon-holed.
In 1920 Dawson was created a baron, taking the title of Lord Dawson of Penn, of Penn, in the county of Buckingham. His elevation to the House of Lords marked the opening of a period of legislation which touched increasingly upon the interests and responsibilities of the medical profession whose spokesman he became. When in 1921 the report of the Cave committee on the position of the voluntary hospitals was debated in the House of Lords, Dawson asked for the special functions of the teaching hospitals to be considered when the new government grant was distributed. In 1929, during the passage of the local government bill, he again championed the cause of the voluntary teaching hospitals and obtained from the Government an amendment which obliged a local authority when providing new hospital accommodation to consult the representatives of the appropriate voluntary hospitals.
To the measure for the reform of the Prayer Book Dawson gave his support. A man of profound though undogmatic religious conviction he was disturbed by the waning strength of Christian belief and teaching, and saw in the Prayer Book reform one means of reconciling old ideas with new. In 1936 he successfully opposed the voluntary euthanasia (legalization) bill in a characteristic speech: We do not lay down edicts for these things. It is a gradual growth of thought and feeling that entwines itself into the texture of our thoughts. — This is something which belongs to the wisdom and conscience of the medical profession and not to the realm of law. In 1937 he supported the matrimonial causes bill and a year later was mainly responsible for the infanticide bill.
Although after 1920 public work made growing demands upon his time, Dawson continued in practice and hospital teaching and with his work as examiner for the London Hospital and Royal College of Physicians. In these years he held many hospital appointments, served from 1929 on the advisory committee to the Ministry of Health and the council of King Edward's Hospital Fund, on the Medical Research Council (1931-5), and in 1936 became chairman of the Army Medical Advisory Board. He found time to read papers on The Colon and Colitis (British Medical Journal, 9 July 1921), and Dyspepsia and the conditions underlying it (ibid., 3 June 1922). In 1921 he addressed the Church Congress on Sexual Relationships (published as Love—Marriage—Birth-Control, 1922) and found himself plunged in controversy. He addressed the Medico-Legal Society on Professional Secrecy (Lancet, 1 April 1922) when the privileges of the medical profession had been assailed in two actions for divorce. Again, in 1926 he upheld the refusal of the General Medical Council to register unqualified osteopaths—notably Sir Herbert Barker [qv.]—and defended his views before a meeting of members of both houses of Parliament.
From 1928 to 1930 Dawson was president of the Royal Society of Medicine and did much to improve the management of the Society's finances. In 1932 he was elected president of the British Medical Association for its centenary year. From 1931 to 1938 he was president of the Royal College of Physicians and promoted research in rheumatoid arthritis, anaemia, pneumococcal and lobar pneumonia, the surgical treatment of cardiac ischaemia, and the uses of radium. He drew the College out of its learned seclusion into active participation in the problems which lay before the medical profession, and widened its representation by encouraging the election of medical men who were members of the salaried government service. Dawson hoped that eventually the three Royal Colleges would unite to form an academy of medicine capable of exercising a far-reaching influence upon public affairs.
During the grave illness of King George V in 1928 Dawson did signal service in saving His Majesty's life, and in 1929 he was sworn of the Privy Council. The death of the King in 1936 brought to an end many years of watchful care by Dawson who himself drafted the bulletin which informed the nation that The King's life is moving peacefully towards its close. He was promoted to a viscountcy (1936) and remained on the household of both King Edward VIII and King George VI.
When war broke out in 1939 Dawson was engaged in the organization of the Emergency Medical Service and his common sense contributed to the reconciliation of civilian with military needs. He was also a member of the medical planning commission set up by the British Medical Association to consider a health service for the nation, and the white paper of 1944 was based to some extent upon its work. In the meantime Dawson had been re-elected president of the British Medical Association in September 1943 and in the period of negotiation which followed the publication of the white paper his main endeavour was to reconcile the legitimate claims of the profession with those of the public interest. While he was anxious for the doctors to give their support to the principle of a national health service he was keenly aware that dangers might accrue from a hasty search for political advantage, and that without sympathetic handling the union which might fruitfully be made between State medicine and private practice would never come to pass.
Before this work was completed Dawson died in London 7 March 1945. His reputation rests not so much upon contributions to medical science or literature, though these were distinguished, but upon his qualities as a doctor and medical statesman. He was noted for his sensitive power of diagnosis which was aided by a remarkable clinical memory and a profound understanding of men and women. He was a firm and consistent leader, sometimes impatient but invariably generous. Outside his profession his capacity for inspiring implicit trust in men of most diverse temperaments and occupations was no less remarkable. Ecclesiastics, like Archbishop Lang, statesmen, like Lloyd George with whom he paid a visit to Hitler at Berchtesgaden in 1936, showed their appreciation of this characteristic. As a host he was genial and entertaining and nothing delighted him more than the company of youth.
Dawson married in 1900 Ethel, daughter of (Sir) Alfred Fernandez Yarrow [qv.]. They had three daughters but no son and the peerage became extinct when Dawson died. In addition to those already mentioned Dawson's many honours included appointment as C.B. (1916), G.C.V.O. (1917), K.C.M.G. (1919), and K.C.B. (1926). In 1925 during a visit to Canada and the United States he received honorary degrees from McGill University and the university of Pennsylvania, and was elected an honorary fellow of the American College of Surgeons. He received also honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford (1926), Edinburgh (1927), Bristol (1933), Padua and Athens, and was elected an honorary F.R.C.S. (1932).
Portraits by (Sir) Oswald Birley and James Gunn are in the possession of the family. Another by P. A. de László was presented to the Royal College of Physicians by Viscountess Dawson.
The Times, 8 March 1945
British Medical Journal and Lancet, 17 March 1945
Francis Watson, Dawson of Penn, 1950
Contributor: Sybil D. Eccles.