Disrupted educations

Along with many other families home schooling during the Covid 19 pandemic has frequently been the cause of frustration and anger in my household. As the days of endless worksheets gave way to days of endless hours on Zoom my partner and I encouraged our son to acknowledge his good fortune. He had a desk, a computer, internet access and very dedicated teachers. He could continue to learn, albeit in a very different way. My son wasn’t convinced, ‘Did this ever happen to you?’ he raged as I tried to point out the positives. ‘No,’ I had to admit. Save the occasional mild illness or snow day my education had moved along, uninterrupted from my first day of kindergarten at four to when I happily completed my final exams at 22. This seemed to me normal, rather than lucky, but I can now see, of course, how very fortunate I was.

Covid, understandably, is all to the fore, but the recordings in the Royal College of Physicians oral history collection are full of stories of disrupted educations from way before the pandemic. Disease remained a major cause, but rather in the way it can paralyse the life of an individual rather than that of a whole country. Margaret Turner-Warwick relates how she contracted tuberculosis at medical school and spent a year in a sanatorium in Switzerland. In some ways this year provided her with valuable experiences to take into her medical career:

“I learned a great deal in that year when I was in bed most of the time, as a patient, and about the anxieties and uncertainties of death.”

Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick DBE FRCP in interview with Sir Christopher Booth: Part 1

Oxford Brookes University Medical Sciences Video Archive 

Similarly, Robin Lawrence’s training as a surgeon at Kings College Hospital in the early 1920s was cruelly interrupted when he was diagnosed with diabetes. He gave up his studies and moved to Florence to work as a GP, expecting to die within 2-3 years.


Black and white photographic portrait of Robert 'Robin' Daniel Lawrence.
Portrait of R.D. Lawrence, 1892-? From a photograph supplied by R.D.L. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection


Both stories demonstrate that the paralysis can lift, however, and studies resume, sometimes refocused and revitalised by these difficult episodes. Lawrence was, “Recalled to life” by the discovery of insulin and subsequently became a diabetes specialist and co-founder of Diabetes UK. Turner-Warwick resumed her studies after leaving the sanatorium and was later involved in developing the triple treatment, streptomycin, para-aminosalicylic acid and isoniazid, which revolutionised the lives of TB patients.

War, as always, was also a great disrupter, and stories of studies derailed by conflict are very common.

Rosemary Rue was an A-Level student during the bombing of London in WWII. She remembers her biology classes from the time:

“She (the teacher) sat with her back to one leg of the grand piano, and I, with the other girl doing zoology, sat with our backs to the other two legs. And we had our dissections on the floor in front of us, and that protected them from the sort of constant stuff that was dropping down from the ceiling while we were trying to work.”

Dame Rosemary Rue DBE in interview with Dr Max Blythe: Interview 1, Part 1

Oxford Brookes University Medical Sciences Video Archive

 This was only the first of a series of difficulties that Rue faced in continuing her education and career which are detailed in Dame Rosemary Rue and the Married Women’s Training Scheme. She used the experiences she gained through these hardships in her later work to increase the range of opportunities open to women in the medical field.

Current RCP Treasurer, Professor Chuka Nwokolo had just started secondary school when the Biafran War broke out in 1967. He and his family lived in refugee camps during the three-year conflict where his father, also an RCP fellow, ran medical clinics. Chuka helped with these, running errands for his father, but was unable to resume his education until 1970, at which point he accelerated through his school exams, starting at medical school in 1972. His first experience of medical research came during the war when he helped his father to identify a lung fluke that was present in the claws of local crabs, causing disease in those that ate them.



Rather than being forced by circumstance, sometimes people chose to put their education on hold for a pressing cause. Raymond Hoffenberg recalls the problems he faced trying to join the army in South Africa to fight the Nazis in WWII:

“The recruiting officers wouldn’t accept me because I’d done three years of medicine, they said I had to go back to medical school. My reply was that if I went back I would not study and I would not do my best in the examinations and that there was no point.”

Sir Raymond Hoffenberg in interview with Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

Oxford Brookes University Medical Sciences Video Archive


Hoffenberg completed his studies after the war but was then forced to leave South Africa due to the stand he took against apartheid policies of the National Party. Having twice jeopardized his career for his political views he became Professor of Medicine at Birmingham University in 1972, President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1983 and President of Wolfson College Oxford in 1985, all the while continuing to give his support to the battle against apartheid.

I don’t want to browbeat my son or any young person with these stories. It wouldn’t be kind or helpful to say, “Well, Margaret Turner-Warwick overcame TB and was in a sanatorium for a year while she was a student, and still went on to become a driving force in her field and the first female president of the Royal College of Physicians,” even though this is true. It’s been a very hard year on multiple fronts, and it seems likely that more hard times and disruption lie ahead. But maybe, used in the right way, these stories and others like them could provide some hope that with flexibility, lateral thinking, resilience and, crucially, the right support, negatives can be turned to positives and a very bright future can still lie ahead.


Sarah Lowry, oral history officer

Sarah Lowry ,
Oral history project officer

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