Michael Abrams, deputy chief medical officer of the Department of Health from 1985 to 1992, was a medical practitioner and a public health consultant. He achieved, overachieved even, in an age when, due to antisemitism, having the last name Abrams was an impediment in postwar English society. An excellent all-round athlete, he competed in junior Wimbledon, as well as representing Birmingham University at squash. There was a modesty about him: never one to boast, he preferred to let his achievements speak for themselves.
He was born in Birmingham, the youngest of three children of Sam Philip Abrams, a company director, and Ruhamah Emmie Abrams née Glieberman. He was educated at Stanley House and then King Edward’s School, Birmingham. He then went on to read medicine at the University of Birmingham, where he graduated with a first-class BSc degree in anatomy and physiology in 1953, and qualified as a doctor in 1956.
After qualification, he held various research and teaching positions at Birmingham hospitals, including posts as a house officer and a senior house officer for the United Birmingham Hospitals, as a research fellow in the department of experimental pathology at the University of Birmingham, as a medical registrar at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham (from 1959 to 1960) and as a medical registrar and Medical Research Council clinical research fellow, also at Queen Elizabeth Hospital (from 1959 to 1962).
He then moved to Guy’s Hospital in London as a Medical Research Council clinical research fellow in the department of medicine, before taking up a very prestigious Rockefeller travelling fellowship to work at the cardiovascular research institute at the University of California’s Medical Center in San Francisco for a year from 1963 to 1964.
On his return, he went back to Guy’s Hospital, where he was a lecturer and then senior lecturer in medicine in the medical school as well as an honorary consultant physician from 1964 to 1975. From 1968 to 1973 he was also chief medical adviser to the Guy’s Hospital/Essex general practice computing unit and director of the inter-departmental laboratory in 1975. There, he pioneered the use of computing in the medical field, leading to several publications on the topic, including Medical computing: progress and problems (London, Chatto & Windus for the British Computer Society, 1970), Spectrum 71 (London, Butterworths, 1971) and The computer in the doctor’s office (Amsterdam, Oxford, North-Holland, 1980), and articles on medical manpower planning, biomedical computing, pulmonary surfactant and glucose tolerance in diabetes. Colleagues there described him as brilliant, wise, kind, thoughtful, thorough and conscientious.
He moved from Guy’s to the Department of Health and Social Security in 1975, where he rose through the ranks. He began as a senior medical officer, graduating to principal medical officer and senior principal medical officer, before being appointed as deputy chief medical officer in 1985. There, he chaired the expert advisory group on AIDS, set up in 1985 to provide scientific advice to government. The following year, he handled the impact of any possible radiation in the United Kingdom following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He also advised on cases of salmonella in eggs and listeria. Those he worked with, who included Edwina Currie, Norman Fowler, and Kenneth Clarke, again recalled how thorough and dedicated he was to his work as a public servant.
He was known for his quiet but forceful style. Never one to raise his voice, his determined manner got results. One report nicely summed up his approach: ‘…[he] respected no privilege, resolutely exercised his authority, and sought probing questions from his committee of doctors.’ A story that circulated among the family was when someone said he recognised his writing style by the ‘steel-jacketed boot going straight for the groin’. His work at the Department of Health was acknowledged with the awarding of a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1992.
During his time at the Department of Health, Michael also held various other positions, including as an examiner in human communication, London University (from 1972 to 1984), president of the section of measurement in medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine (from 1981 to 1983), chairman of the computer committee at the Royal College of Physicians (from 1981 to 1989) and chairman of the editorial board of Health Trends (from 1988 to 1999).
On his retirement, he worked as a public health consultant advising governments, including in Chile, Uganda, Kenya, Montserrat and Peru, as well as serving as the UK delegate of the Council of Europe’s steering committee on bioethics (from 1990 to 1997). He was also a member of the World Health Organization’s Council on Earth Summit Action Programme for Health and Environment from 1993. He was an honorary consultant physician emeritus at Guy’s Hospital and an honorary lecturer in medicine at Guy’s Medical School.
From 1993 to 1998, he was chairman of the Haringey Healthcare NHS Trust. He then served as chairman of the Whittington Hospital NHS Trust (from 1998 to 2003). During his tenure, he oversaw significant refurbishments.
Outside of work, he was a proud and observant Orthodox Jew who spent many hours in the synagogue in prayer and study, as well as in voluntary and charitable activities. He saw it as his duty to engage in communal affairs: he served as an honorary officer at Muswell Hill Synagogue from 1974 to 1995. He loved a Talmudic discussion – during which he asked particularly penetrating questions, seemingly simple on the surface but belying a deeper complexity – which he even did by Skype when he was too ill to attend in person. Synagogue members described him as a lovely man, great both in his professional and communal work – a magnificent example to all. He was hugely valued by his colleagues and much enjoyed by his friends.
When not at work or synagogue, he adored reading widely, especially crime thrillers, as well as ‘beachcombing’, DIY, games, puzzles, crosswords, chess, Scrabble, sudoku and bridge. He also enjoyed book collecting, gardening, cats, chocolate, wine and whiskey. He was never happier than doing a cryptic crossword, sipping on a single malt with a cat on his lap.
He also delighted in his grandchildren: taking his eldest granddaughter, Cara, shopping for hours and teaching his eldest grandson, Josh, to play chess and Scrabble. He enjoyed getting to know his youngest grandchildren Isabel and Jacob in recent years.
Michael was survived by his wife Rosalind (née Beckman), whom he married in 1962, his children, Rebecca, Jonathan, Jeremy and Nathan, and his grandchildren, Cara, Joshua, Isabel and Jacob.
[The Guardian 19 August 2019 www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/19/michael-abrams-obituary – accessed 11 March 2020]