Obituary: Prudence Barron, MBE, FRCS (Edin), MB.BS. (Lond) surgeon and geriatrician

Born: 16 September, 1917, in Poona Maharashtra, India. Died: 10 October, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 97.
Prue Barron MBE: Surgeon and geriatrician known for her compassion and breadth of knowledgePrue Barron MBE: Surgeon and geriatrician known for her compassion and breadth of knowledge
Prue Barron MBE: Surgeon and geriatrician known for her compassion and breadth of knowledge

Prudence Barron learned her profession during and after the Second World War but did also recount that she did have a small taste of pre-war formality. There used to be a weekly ward round by the consultant, during which the student doctors would line up in clean white coats as the great man arrived in his chauffeur-driven Rolls, clad in pinstripes and black jacket, wearing a grey top hat.

She was born in Poona Maharashtra in India in 1917 during the First World War; her father, Colonel Frederick Halton, who in peacetime was a solicitor and later the coroner for Cumberland, had been stationed on the North-west Frontier during the third Afghan rising. His wife, Ella, missed him greatly and went out to join him; subsequently Prue arrived.

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Blockaded by a submarine barrage, it was not until two years later that Prue and her mother could return home to Carlisle, after a gruelling six-week sea voyage. Prue’s four older siblings, expecting an Indian sister, were very disappointed when she finally arrived.

Educated as a boarder at Cheltenham Ladies’ College from the age of 12, she became a prefect and then head of house.

Encouraged by her mother, she was accepted for one of the six places for women at the London School of Medicine in 1936 and was on the wards at the Royal Free Hospital by 1939, when the operating theatres were put underground to avoid the Blitz. The students, considered highly valuable, were farmed out for their safety and moved around the Home Counties practising the different specialties. For Prue it was paediatrics at Carshalton, eyes at Bedford, orthopaedics and casualty at Luton, pathology at St Albans and midwifery at Woking.

She qualified in 1942 and moved to Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle to take the post initially of house physician and then house surgeon where, as the senior surgeon commented: “Miss Halton’s duties were unusually arduous: besides work in the surgical wards, operating theatre and casualty department she shared duties in the fracture service, gynaecological wards and the Emergency Medical Annexe for war casualties.

“She proved to be thoroughly efficient and completely reliable. Her devotion to duty, kindness to patients and staff alike made work in my wards run very smoothly.”

After 18 months Prue secured a position at The Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh as a clinical assistant to the renowned Gertrude Herzfeld, the first practising woman surgeon in Scotland. She enjoyed every minute of this post while studying for her surgical fellowship. During this time, Penicillin, in the form of a thick brown liquid administered by injection, was just being released for civilian use and Prue was witness to the spectacular results.

The Professor of Surgery in Edinburgh wrote: “She has performed a great many operations, some of considerable difficulty and complexity, and her results have been marked by uniform success.”

Following intensive study she became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in July 1945, just a few days after VE Day.

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With a Fellowship under her belt she went on to become the Assistant Surgical Resident back at Cumberland Infirmary and then, after a year, in order to expand her knowledge and experience, she gained the post of Surgical Resident at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, where she assisted in the first paediatric open heart operation.

Throughout this period in a high pressure environment with post-war demands and staff shortages she excelled in every field. Prue was invited back to Edinburgh by Miss Herzfeld and was appointed Senior Surgical Registrar at Bruntsfield Hospital in October 1947 as the inception of the NHS was under way. To supplement what was a very modest salary she demonstrated anatomy at the University of Edinburgh and it was there, in the somewhat unromantic setting of the dissection room, that she met fellow surgeon Arthur F M Barron.

They were married in Carlisle Cathedral in 1950 and a year later the first of three children arrived. When she judged the youngest was old enough Prue returned part-time to her medical career, initially working as the medical officer at Crawford’s biscuit factory in Edinburgh and later as a GP in a Leith Walk practice.

In 1967 she was appointed medical officer for geriatrics at Queensberry House and Lodge in the Canongate, where she was known for her kindness, sensitivity and compassion and was also acknowledged as an extremely capable clinician.

Tragically, in 1971, suddenly and unexpectedly Arthur, her husband, died following a massive stroke. Being left to cope with three teenage children and a reduced income could not have been easy. Stalwart and determined as ever, she continued to work at Queensberry but now also as the Geriatric Associate Specialist at The Royal Victoria, Corstorphine and Eastern General hospitals.

In 1975 she was awarded the MBE for services to geriatrics. The investiture took place at Buckingham Palace on what would have been her silver wedding anniversary.

When St Columba’s Hospice opened in 1977 Prue worked on a voluntary basis, covering weekends and many nights, subsequently joining the executive committee until 1993.

In addition to her work she was a leading light in the Marriage Guidance Council, a valued assistant in the Leith Hospital Samaritan Society, a dedicated supporter of Christ Church Trinity and then St James Goldenacre. She was chair of the local Medical Women’s Federation and in her retirement chair of the Cruse bereavement counselling service.

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Devoted to her immediate and wider family circle, Prue enjoyed and was knowledgeable in a variety of subjects including the classics, literature, ornithology, botany and gardening. She had a great depth of understanding of Christianity and throughout her life was sustained by her faith. She kept abreast of current affairs and never lost her fascination for the developments in contemporary medicine.

Prue and Arthur were caring and attentive parents, giving the family a wonderful childhood in Trinity, Edinburgh which seemed to be the meeting point and main playground of all the local children.

“We’ve been on holiday,” Prue said to one of the neighbours once. “Yes, I know,” she replied. “It was heaven.”

She was always a most attentive and loving grandmother and great-grandmother. Keeping up to speed with the modern world and being computer literate, she regularly shared photographs and e-mails with family and friends.

A great fighter with a quiet but stubborn determination, aged 92 she had open heart valve replacement surgery, later having both eyes treated for cataracts and more recently a new and advanced hip operation following a fall. She continually bounced back but finally her heart started to fail and with placid acceptance she drifted happily and peacefully away on 10 October.

Right to the very end she was in complete control, even evaluating with the hospital doctor the relative merits of her medication and discussing with the junior registrars their future careers. Her consultant wrote: “It was a privilege to have met her, we discussed her experiences and it is very clear that such an intelligent and determined woman paved the way for many other female clinicians and surgeons to be able to deliver the care they do today.”

She is survived by her three children, Caroline, Bessie and Richard; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, the last of whom was born on the day of her funeral. Within her well-organised papers she left a note to the family:

Life is eternal

Love is immortal

Death is only a horizon

And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.