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Dr Robert Henderson

Dr Robert Henderson, CBE, MD, DPH, physician and developer of the iron lung; born April 7, 1902, died December 26, 1999

ROBERT Henderson started his working life as an apprentice motor mechanic before qualifying in medicine and pioneering the introduction of the first ''iron lung'' in Britain. He first developed an interest in intensive care after seeing the Drinker Respirator in use in the United States in the early 1930s. On his return to Scotland he bought materials from local firms, including portholes and other items obtained from ships' chandlers. The contraption was put together in the evenings and at weekends with the help of Aberdeen City Hospital's engineer, was mounted in a cabinet on the base of a children's cot and became known as the Henderson Respirator. It was Britain's first iron lung. Four weeks after its construction it was used to save the life of a10-year-old boy from New Deer, Aberdeenshire, who was suffering from infantile paralysis, now known as poliomyelitis. Despite being the first polio case to be treated that way in Britain, the local medical officer of health condemned the nationwide publicity and Henderson was disciplined for using hospital facilities to build the machine. As a consequence of this, his draft paper on the case was never submitted for publication. This was corrected in 1997 by a paper in the Scottish Medical Journal, making the 63 years between draft and publication a possible record. Henderson joined a committee set up by the Medical Research Council in 1938 to report on ''breathing machines''. In 1939 Lord Nuffield offered to manufacture these respirators and supply them free of charge to any hospital in Britain and the Empire which wanted one. Scotland alone received 75. The tank respirators were used widely until they were replaced by positive pressure ventilators through endotracheal tubes in the 1950s. Robert Gregory Henderson was born in Clatt, Aberdeenshire, where his father was the village blacksmith, a farmer, and businessman. He was taken from school during the Great War and apprenticed to the local garage. His teacher at Huntly School suggested to Henderson's father that Robert should become a doctor. This was agreed and special tuition was arranged so he could enter medical school. He graduated from Aberdeen University in 1929 and became resi-dent medical officer at the City Hospital, where his career began. He moved to London in 1935, having decided against general practice, and became deputy medical superintendent at Park Fever Hospital and subsequently principal assistant medical officer at County Hall, where he ran the clinical laboratory. Before the outbreak of war in 1939 he was appointed divisional medical officer to Sector V of the Ministry of Health Emergency Hospital Service, responsible for upgrading hospitals for war purposes. He was stationed at Tindal House, Aylesbury, now the site of Stoke Mandeville Hospital. In April 1940 he became medical superintendent of the 1700-bed Southern Hospital in Dartford, Kent. The Royal Navy had 500 beds at the Southern as an adjunct to the RN Hospital, Chatham, and Henderson was appointed commanding officer in the rank of Surgeon Captain, RNVR, one of only two in the history of the Volunteer Reserve. He was made CBE in 1947 for services to medicine, but chose redundancy when the Southern was closed in 1959 and later demolished to make way for the M20 motorway. Apart from occasional locums and working as a ship's doctor with P&O and Cunard, he moved away from active medicine. While living in Dartford he was a great friend of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who contested the local seat for the Conservatives in the General Elections of 1950 and 1951. In 1960 he married Josie Beeney, and took on the life of a farmer on the Romney Marsh. He propagated up to 300 roses each year, winning many prizes, and played bowls well into his 90s. Henderson is survived by his wife and three stepchildren.

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