Obituary: Dr Charles Farthing, medical practitioner

Dr Charles Farthing: Doctor who pioneered the treatment of HIV/Aids
Dr Charles Farthing: Doctor who pioneered the treatment of HIV/Aids
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Born: 22 April, 1953, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Died: 5 April, 2014, in Hong Kong, aged 60

Charles Farthing was an eminent doctor at the forefront in the diagnosis and care for HIV/Aids patients long before the illness was understood. He also did much to remove the stigma attached to the disease. Farthing, with much sensitivity, drew attention to the need for an Aids vaccine by announcing his willingness to inject himself. Although the project was not activated, Farthing was never afraid of making controversial statements about Aids care. “Someone has to go first,” he said when he volunteered.

In 2004 Farthing presented a paper at the 7th International Congress on Drug Therapy for HIV Infection in Glasgow in which he explained that “30 per cent of our patients are on drugs that are inadequate and it doesn’t look like Ritonavir boosting will solve the problem.”

Charles Frank Farthing was born into a Roman Catholic family in Christchurch and educated at the city’s Christ’s College He read medicine at the Dunedin School of Medicine and practised in Christchurch for five years before coming to Britain to continue his studies at St Stephen’s Hospital in London.

By 1982 he was working as a dermatologist at St Stephen’s and volunteering to treat patients at its STD clinic. He noticed a pattern of rare skin conditions among some of the patients. He conducted researched in medical journals and formed the opinion that the patients may have been infected with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

The problem was that little was known about the virus. Within three years it was spreading at an alarming speed throughout the major cities – especially among the homosexual community and drug users.

Farthing created a special Aids clinic at St Stephen’s where the number of patients with full-blown Aids rose from 20 in 1985 to 1,000 two years later. Public anxiety mounted and there were rumours in the press that the disease could be caught in the most casual manner. Farthing treated those (and their next-of-kin) with immense understanding and empathy. He particularly recognised the need for special care as there was no effective treatment available.

In 1988 he became a fellow to research Aids treatment at Bellevue Hospital in New York and later became director of the hospital’s Aids programme.

In 1994 he moved to Los Angeles as principal investigator for Aids Healthcare Foundation research, becoming medical director of the foundation. Farthing was actively involved in establishing education programmes and clinics in many countries – notably in Africa.

In the past few years Farthing had moved to Hong Kong where he worked for a company that had developed a new drug for HIV infection which was being made available worldwide.

He was one of the first Western doctors to teach in China and lectured at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Farthing was instrumental in the introduction of the triple drug therapy that radically transformed survival rates and the quality of life for those infected with HIV. It was in 1997 that he volunteered to act as a guinea-pig regarding the use of an HIV-vaccine. He was frustrated at the precautions proposed by the medical authorities to slow down the tests.

Farthing was held in great esteem by his medical colleagues and his comprehensive knowledge of the subject – allied to his determined and articulate powers of persuasion – ensured successive ministers of health (not least the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher) mounted extensive campaigns for safer sex.

Such was his renown in Whitehall that Farthing chaired the all-party parliamentary committee on Aids and was founder of the campaigning and fundraising UK Aids Foundation which proved vital in spreading awareness throughout the country. He also worked closely with such charities as the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Farthing sat on the board of the Sir Elton John Aids Charity and greeted Princess Diana when she opened the Aids ward at St Stephen’s Hospital. “Princess Diana was extremely helpful,” Farthing recalled. “She was friendly with my patients and used to sit at their bedsides.’’

There is little doubt that Farthing’s medical expertise greatly alleviated a worsening situation. Many patients bear testimony to his tact, sympathy and enormous concern.

He was never judgmental and displayed a willingness to treat the most ill patients with courtesy, understanding and warmth. Farthing was a lover of classical music – especially The Messiah – and had an impish sense of humour when away from the research lab. He was once asked what was the most memorable or useful thing he had learnt from a patient. He replied immediately: “That saying sorry when you have goofed up in some way works.”

Farthing recruited, mentored and trained many doctors. From the outset of his career he helped to build medical clinics that have served the community and saved countless lives.

Charles Farthing, who died from a heart attack, is survived by his partner, Dougie Lui.