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Girdlestone, Gathorne Robertlocked

(1881–1950)

Girdlestone, Gathorne Robert (1881–1950), orthopaedic surgeon, was born on 8 October 1881 at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the only son of the principal, the Revd Robert Baker Girdlestone, later an honorary canon of Christ Church, and his second wife, Mary Matilda, daughter of John Wood, of Thedden Grange. He was the grandson of Charles Girdlestone. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at New College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in natural science (physiology) in 1904. He entered St Thomas's Hospital as a university scholar and qualified in 1908. After holding resident appointments at St Thomas's he settled in 1911 at Oswestry in Shropshire as a general practitioner and surgeon. He became attracted to the work of Robert Jones (whose notice he wrote for the Dictionary of National Biography) at the orthopaedic hospital at Baschurch which had been founded by Dame Agnes Hunt. From being a spectator Girdlestone became an assistant and quickly grasped the significance of the endeavours to make the hospital the centre of a group of orthopaedic aftercare clinics in the surrounding counties.

Between 1915 and 1919 Girdlestone served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was placed in charge of a military orthopaedic centre established at the Wingfield Convalescent Home in Headington, Oxford. When in 1919 the hospital came under the supervision of the Ministry of Pensions, Girdlestone remained in charge of it. Later, beds were reserved for crippled children, and as the work for pensioners diminished so, in 1922, the Wingfield Orthopaedic Hospital emerged. After the war Jones and Girdlestone embarked on their national campaign for the relief of ‘cripples’ and in 1920 the Central Council for the Care of Cripples was formed. Together they worked out a plan on the Oswestry model to serve as a guide for developments elsewhere. Girdlestone's own scheme was based at the Wingfield and served Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Berkshire.

During the following decade Sir William Morris (later Viscount Nuffield) became aware of Girdlestone's pioneer work and his ambition to rebuild the Wingfield. He provided the money and in 1933 the new Wingfield–Morris Orthopaedic Hospital was opened (it was later renamed the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre). Girdlestone, now a close friend of Lord Nuffield, was also concerned in the negotiations which led up to Nuffield's gift of £2 million to the University of Oxford for the establishment of professorial clinical departments. Again with Lord Nuffield's generous aid Girdlestone established orthopaedic schemes for Northern Ireland and for South Africa, which he visited in 1937. From 1937 to 1939 Girdlestone was professor of orthopaedic surgery in Oxford, the first to hold such a chair in this country; he was not, however, a scientist, and was disturbed by the growth in medicine of experimental investigation.

The war called for an extension of the Wingfield, but as regional orthopaedic consultant in the Emergency Medical Service, Girdlestone wisely persuaded the Ministry of Health to erect a separate hospital; its design, far better than that of the standard emergency hospital, was largely his own work. It was named the Churchill Hospital and, at Girdlestone's suggestion, was first occupied by an orthopaedic unit from the United States called the American Hospital in Britain. The hospital, despite its ‘temporary’ buildings, became a valuable part of the United Oxford Hospitals. Thus Girdlestone helped to give Oxford two of its premier hospitals. In 1940 he became consulting orthopaedic surgeon to the Ministry of Pensions, honorary consultant to the army, and in 1942–3 he was president of the British Orthopaedic Association.

Girdlestone wrote with clarity and elegance and a number of his papers have an abiding value; so also has his book, Tuberculosis of Bone and Joint (1940). He was a handsome man, whose portrait by Sir William Rothenstein did not do him full justice. He also gave and inspired great affection and his life was governed by deeply religious feelings. It was his passionate belief in the importance of his mission rather than cool statesmanship which accounted for the success of his enterprises and for his great influence. Essentially an autocrat, he was uncompromising and, in consequence, sometimes came into conflict with those whose ideas differed from his own. In 1909 Girdlestone married Ina Mabel (d. 1956), daughter of George Chatterton, JP and civil engineer, of Wimbledon; there were no children. They lived latterly at Fir Corner, Frilford Heath, Berkshire. Girdlestone died at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, on 30 December 1950.

Sources

  • BMJ (13 Jan 1951), 93–5
  • The Lancet (13 Jan 1951)
  • personal knowledge (1959)
  • private information (1959)

Likenesses

  • F. Eastman, print, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Headington, Oxford
  • W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, NPG

Wealth at Death

£57,633 2s. 9d.: probate, 15 March 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
British Medical Journal