Christopher Addison was born on the 19th June 1869, at Hogsthorpe in Lincolnshire where his family had been farmers for many generations. His father, Robert, and his elder brothers carried on the family tradition; his mother, Susan, was the daughter of Charles Fanthorpe, a customs official in Newcastle. On neither side of his family was there any connection with medicine or politics. Even as a child, Addison showed an interest in politics, haranguing his playmates and family. Perhaps for this reason his first choice of a career was the law.
He was educated at Trinity College, Harrogate, and at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. Early in his undergraduate career his promise was noted, and, at a time when anatomy bulked more largely in medical studies than now, it was in this field that he attracted attention. In 1892 he became demonstrator in anatomy at the medical school, Sheffield, and four years later, when a chair of anatomy was created, he was appointed to it. It was during this period that he did his work on the topographical anatomy of the abdomen, establishing as his point of reference the transpyloric, or Addison’s, plane (J. Anat. (Lond.), 1899, 33, 565-86).
In 1901 he delivered a course of Hunterian lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons and later that year became special lecturer in anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, where he subsequently became dean and was deeply involved in university organisation. In 1907 he became lecturer in anatomy at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. But he had not lost his ambition to enter politics, and contemporaries recalled that he was as likely to be studying political economy as anatomy.
He was adopted as Liberal candidate for Hoxton in 1907 and returned as Member in 1910. He retained his lectureship in anatomy at his old hospital until 1913, but thereafter his life was entirely devoted to politics, and it so happened that in that period many measures of social policy came forward on which his medical background enabled him to exert great influence.
Addison came into Parliament at the time when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr David Lloyd George, was introducing the National Health Insurance Act, and it was his criticisms of some of the original provisions that first brought him to ministerial attention. Without doubt his suggestions removed some of the acrimony from a controversial situation and early established his reputation for friendly yet firm good sense. Within four years he was appointed a junior minister in the Board of Education; but then all was altered by the outbreak of the First World War.
Going with Mr. Lloyd George to the Ministry of Munitions in 1915, he succeeded him in the following year as Minister. In this latter post, however, he remained for little more than a year before becoming Minister of Reconstruction and thereby intimately concerned with the interests of medicine.
Military conscription had brought forcibly to public notice the general health and development of the people, and there was a firm determination that, after the war, a Ministry of Health should be created. As Minister in charge of Reconstruction it was one of Addison’s tasks to bring this into being, and in 1919 he became the first Minister of Health. In these tasks Addison was intimately associated with two great figures, the philosopher-statesman Lord Haldane of Cloan, and the imaginative civil servant Sir Robert Morant, and together they devised measures that long stood the test of time.
A typical example of Addison’s foresight was his provision for medical research. A Medical Research Committee, of which Addison was a member, had been brought into being as a result of the National Health Insurance Act of 1911. In 1918 it was generally assumed that this would become the research department of the new Ministry of Health. But Addison, with his own personal experience of research, refused to allow this, and insisted that research should be set up independently of the executive departments of government, which necessarily must be guided by political considerations.
As a result the Medical Research Council, which was created in 1920, was established by Royal Charter and placed under the Privy Council. In 1922 Addison lost his seat in Parliament. Thereafter he joined the Labour party and in 1929 was returned as Member for Swindon. In the Labour Government he became Minister of Agriculture, a subject in which he had always been closely interested. He lost his seat again in 1931 but regained it in 1934, only to lose it the next year. He was considered, however, to be too valuable to lose, and in 1937 he was created a Baron.
Following the return of a Labour Government in 1945 he held a succession of ministerial posts, culminating in that of Lord President of the Council; throughout the whole of this period he was the leader of his party in the House of Lords. In this latter capacity his fairness, benignity and sense produced a concert in working that compelled the respect of friends and opponents alike. It was during this time, nearly forty years after he had left academic life for politics, that Addison again came into contact with the interests of his earlier life.
In 1948 he became chairman of the Medical Research Council, the plan for which he had presented to the Cabinet just thirty years earlier. Despite his age he was as alert and fresh minded as those who were many years his junior, and his appreciation of natural realities was undimmed. A change of government occurred during his period of office, but such was the respect in which he was held that no suggestion was made that he should be replaced. It was his hope to continue as chairman when ill health made him resign his ministerial office.
Addison received many honours. In one he was unique: he was the only medical man to receive the Order of the Garter. Although his prominent services were in politics, he never ceased to think as a medical man. His profession can indeed count itself fortunate that during the crucial social changes that occurred during his political life, a man of his integrity, realism and understanding was in the inner councils where decisions were made. In 1902 he married Isobel, daughter of Archibald Gray of Holland Park. She died in 1934, leaving him with two sons and two daughters. In 1937 he married Dorothy, daughter of Mr J. P. Low.
Richard R Trail
[Brit.med.J., 1951, 2, 1510-11, 1525-7 (p); Lancet, 1951, 2, 1186-7 (p); Times, 12 (p), 13, 19 Dec. 1951; Lives R.C.S., 6-8; C. Addison. Four and a half years: a personal diary from June 1914 to Jan. 1919. London, 1934. 2 vols; R. J. Minney. Viscount Addison: leader of the Lords. London, 1958]