Hedley Atkins was the only son of a distinguished Guy’s general practitioner, Sir John Atkins KCMG KCVO FRCS. Hedley, by which name he was always known, was educated at Rugby, Trinity College Oxford and Guy’s. He was a man of commanding presence and excellent physique, playing rugby football for his school, Middlesex, Harlequins and Guy’s. He seldom missed attending Guy’s matches for the rest of his life. He was a keen sailor and latterly a dedicated gardener.
Having obtained first class honours in his physiology degree at Oxford, he went to Guy’s with an entrance scholarship where he won the treasurer’s gold medal in clinical surgery, qualifying in 1932. All his resident appointments were at Guy’s and he became an FRCS in 1934, gaining the Hallett prize, and Master of Chirurgery at Oxford in 1935. Two years later, in 1937, at the early age of 31 he was appointed to the staff of Guy’s as assistant surgeon and spent all his professional life in that institution.
In 1942 he went to North Africa with the RAMC and subsequently served in Italy and the UK, was mentioned in despatches and was demobilized with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Hedley returned to Guy’s after the war determined to bring a scientist’s approach to what was then very much the art of surgery. He was appointed director of the department of surgery and pursued his own special interest in breast diseases.
He was a pioneer in using controlled trials to evaluate different modes of treatment of breast cancer, and meticulous in his observance of ethical principles, which was no easy task in such an emotive subject. Distinguished visitors from both home and abroad were regularly invited to take the Saturday morning rounds at Guy’s, and he also hosted outstanding courses of lectures on modern methods of measurement in science, which were published in three volumes as Tools of Biological Research.
Hedley’s contribution to the field of breast cancer was twofold; first an appreciation of the importance of controlled clinical trials and second, a study of the hormonal factors influencing the prognosis. This work has a fitting memorial in the Hedley Atkins breast unit at New Cross hospital.
At the Royal College of Surgeons Hedley joined the court of examiners in 1949, was elected to council in 1952, vice-president 1964-1966, and was president from 1966 to 1969. His natural gifts made him the ideal choice for such a position and these were probably the happiest and proudest years of his life. He was Bradshaw lecturer in 1965, Hunterian orator in 1971 and joined the court of patrons in 1972. Hedley was a fluent speaker and enjoyed the opportunity which the College’s monthly dinners gave him to address informally the fellows and their guests. He had an excellent command of the English language due to his grounding in the classics and his lifelong habit of reading. He seldom used notes when lecturing.
His opinions were sought by many bodies and he served on the General Medical Council, the General Dental Council, and on the clinical research board of the Medical Research Council. He presided over the Surgical Research Society in 1960. At this period many honours were conferred on him and he became an honorary fellow of most of the colleges of surgeons.
He enjoyed visiting surgical centres abroad and was Sims travelling commonwealth professor in 1961, and acted as visiting professor in a number of American universities. He gave many eponymous lectures and was visiting examiner at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, London, Birmingham and the West Indies. As an author he contributed widely to surgical and medical journals, mainly on breast disease, and his most recent publication in 1977 was autobiographical, Memoirs of a Surgeon.
In 1953 the Royal College of Surgeons of England acquired Down House, the former home of Charles Darwin in the village of Downe in Kent, and adjoining the College’s Buckston Browne Research Farm. The ground floor of the house became a museum dedicated to Darwin, and Hedley and his wife moved into the upper floors which became their home. He was the honorary, and indeed enthusiastic, curator of the museum and tended it with reverent care. His love of gardening was given full rein on retirement and many generations of surgeons have enjoyed his gracious hospitality in Down House and its gardens.
Hedley married in 1933 Gladys Gwendoline Jones, the daughter of a civil engineer, and his family life gave him great happiness. One of his sons is a physician in Canada. Hedley will be remembered as a kind, scholarly surgeon who enjoyed helping the younger members of his profession.
* He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."
[Brit.med.J., 1983, 287, 1803; Lancet, 1983, 2, 1375; Times, 2 Dec 1983]