November 14, 2018

Sir Kenneth Stuart: a Caribbean medical trailblazer


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From Barbados Today

It is with sadness but a profound sense of both respect and responsibility that I pen this appreciation of one of the several senior medical academics and teachers who had a profound influence on the health of people as well as on my own life and career.

Sir Kenneth Stuart, MB, BCh, FRCP, FRCPE, FACP, DTM, a founding father of the University of the West Indies’ distinguished Medical Faculty, passed away on November 11 in London, at the noble age of 97. He played a major role in the achievement of that distinction by the university during his tenure there from 1952 until 1976 when he was appointed Medical Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat. His passing represents the end of an era.

Kenneth Lamont Stuart was born on June 16, 1920, into a deeply religious home in Bank Hall. He learnt his three Rs at the famous Wesley Hall Boys’ School under the legendary Charles F. Broome, and proceeded to Harrison College. There he was part of that sixth form galaxy that included Sir Roy Marshall, Sir Carlisle Burton, Sir James Tudor and National Hero the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow.

He played cricket and football, of course, but his great physique was acquired by swimming for miles off Brighton Beach, in the company of Sir Carlisle. And it has no doubt been the combination of great genes and an extremely active and healthy life style that enabled him to long outlive these other brilliant contemporaries.

He won the Barbados Scholarship of 1940 in classics, and after a BA at McGill in classics and philosophy, he went on to study medicine in Belfast, Northern Ireland, paving the way for other great classical scholars like Sir George Alleyne (MBBS UWI), Dr Richie Haynes and Dr Oscar Jordan (both graduates of the University of Edinburgh) to transmutate from arts to science. He graduated in 1948, having been awarded the Coulter Scholarship for Clinical Medicine and Surgery and wasted no time gaining a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and the Royal College Memberships.

After several attachments to hospitals in Britain, Sir Ken returned to the Caribbean in “two twos” – four years to be exact –as Senior Registrar at the newly opened University College Hospital of the West Indies in Jamaica, in 1952.

A year later, he became Lecturer in Medicine and was promoted at great speed to Senior Lecturer in Medicine, 1958-1962; Reader in Medicine, 1962-1966; Professor of Medicine, 1966-1978; Dean, Medical Faculty, 1969-1971; and Head of the Department of Medicine, 1972-1976, becoming the first West Indian Professor of Medicine in 1966.

His career as researcher, teacher and international consultant can be divided, like Gaul, into three parts. The first is the glorious early period of what began as the University College of the West Indies, established as a college of the University of London. These were the founding years, from 1948 when the first 33 medical students entered the Mona Campus in the serendipitously available Gibraltar Refugee Camp at the old Mona Sugar Estate near Kingston in 1948, and the opening of the University Hospital of the West Indies in 1952, until the beginning of the expansion plans for the medical faculty in 1966.

Sir Ken relished the challenge of blazing a trail and the wealth of research to be done in a country with poor colonial health services, widespread poverty and a range of diseases that he would never have encountered during his training in Belfast or in his postgraduate years in Britain. Like a medical King Midas, everything he touched turned to gold. First came the description, with Bras and Jelliffe, of Veno-occlusive Disease of the liver, or V.O.D., an aggressive liver disease killing Jamaican children. It was caused by a popular bush tea made from the herb crotalaria retusa – one of the many popular cure-alls of our grandmothers, who had no idea how toxic it was.

This was followed by the discovery of a toxin, hypoglycine A, in the unripe Jamaican ackee, cause of the feared vomiting sickness. The Jamaican ackee, which came originally from West Africa, is a staple in Jamaica, but no one knew that there was a toxin in the unripe ackee which broke down once the ackee was ripe and the outer shell opened up. Many children who were poorly nourished were very susceptible to this toxin and were admitted to hospital seriously ill – with very low blood sugar.

After these problems were solved, a Ministry of Health education unit was set up to educate the public about these two dreaded diseases. There is no better demonstration in the world of the impact of research on public health, of the benefits of health education, and of successful partnership between medical researchers and Ministry of Health.

The next ten years saw a steady flow of some fifty papers on malnutrition, rheumatic fever, cardiomyopathies and high blood pressure, with the development of a hypertension special clinic at the University hospital, and Sir Ken’s recognition on the world scene.

The second part of Sir Ken’s career combined that international reputation abroad with his role at Mona, as Dean of the Medical Faculty and Head of the Department of Medicine. He promoted the development of medical teaching in Barbados and Trinidad, and he led the development of our own postgraduate programmes, in response to a group of us (calling ourselves the Action Group) who protested the continuing need for West Indians to emigrate to North America for specialty training.

Abroad, he was made a member of the WHO Expert Panel on Cardiovascular Disorders, Consultant to the Pan American Health Organization, Chairman of their Committee for Control of Hypertension, Honorary Lecturer at Harvard and Member of the Board of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In 1976, he began the third phase of his career, first as Medical Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat and then Consultant Adviser to the Wellcome Trust, Chairman of the Court of Governors of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, member of the Board of Governors of the IDRC, member of the Council of Governors of Guys’, Kings and St. Thomas’s Hospitals Medical School, London; Honorary Lecturer in Medicine at the Royal Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital in London, Honorary Medical and Scientific Adviser to the Barbados High Commission, Chairman of the Caribbean Health Research Council, Consultant to the World Bank, member of the Academic Board of St. George’s University and a member of the Board of Directors of the UK Trust for the Windward Islands Research and Education Foundation (WINDREF), among others.

Sir Ken was knighted by Her Majesty the Queen in 1977 for services to medicine in the Caribbean and the Commonwealth and in 1986 he received an Honorary DSc from his alma mater, Queen’s University in Belfast. He never lost his love for his Barbados, and his roots. He invested in an alternate home here in Paynes Bay, and had a share in the Discovery Bay Hotel, while his interest in tourism was elegantly expressed by his mother, the owner and proprietress of the Blue Caribbean on the corner of St. Lawrence Gap.

Sir Ken’s secret of success has been his canny ability to convert thought into action and action into words. Many an academic career has foundered at the mere thought of action, or at the effort of writing well. Many have the urge to write but lie down until the urge passes. Sir Ken has taken to heart the lines of both the English poet W.H.Auden and the Elizabethan poet Francis Bacon.

Auden wrote:

“Those who will not reason perish in the Act –

Those who will not act perish for that reason.”

Bacon wrote:

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

These are the marks of scholarship, which Sir Ken mastered in full measure, and the third phase of his work continued at the same pace as during his main academic career. He re-wrote the fundamental messages of health promotion, which he took to heart himself, and which gave him the gift of eternal youth. He took his many messages to all corners of the globe – and although quintessentially Barbadian, he became very much a citizen of Planet Earth.

He was one of the world leaders in the field of hypertension, and although I didn’t anticipate it at the time, his inspiration in understanding and managing hypertension was to play a major part in the development of my own medical specialty and career – because as a clinical pharmacologist, I recognised the huge problem of hypertension in the Caribbean and the challenges to control it, leading ultimately to the founding of the now renamed the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre.

The passing of this illustrious Bajan, West Indian and Citizen of the World at the glorious age of 97 is testament to a life of extraordinary energy and passion – physical strength and activity combined with mental creativity of the highest order. The sympathy of his thousands of colleagues and former students goes out to his wife Barbara, Lady Stuart, and his three brilliant children – Andrea, Steven and Lynda.

May he rest in peace!

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