Obituary: Ronald Mahaffy, surgeon, radiologist and farmer

RRonald Mahaffy FRCSE FRCR, surgeon, radiologist and farmer. Born: 27 October, 1929, in Edinburgh.

DDied: 8 August, 2011, in Aberdeen, aged 81

If ever there was an advert for grabbing life with both hands, Ronald Mahaffy should surely have been its poster boy.

Having declined the opportunity to become the oldest man to scale Everest, he went on to “nip up” the Matterhorn, aged 70. But then he had already been a surgeon, a Gurkha, SAS “tree jumper”, radiologist and cattle breeder, as well as a rugby player and squash champion.

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And it was a measure of his optimistic attitude to life that when he turned down the chance to conquer the world’s highest peak – fearing a niggling back injury might compromise the climb – he told his son: “You can climb a lot of Scottish hills for the cost of an Everest expedition!”

The youngest of three brothers, he was born in Edinburgh and educated at Daniel Stewart’s College. Although he won a bursary it was a great sacrifice to his parents William, an insurance salesman, and Isabella, a farmer’s daughter.

He excelled both academically and in sport, playing rugby for the first XV and gaining a place at Edinburgh University in 1947 to read medicine and where continued to play for Stewart’s.

He graduated in 1952 and, after two house surgeon posts in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and a stint as a house physician in Sedgefield, Co Durham, was called up for national service.

Serving during the Malaya Emergency of the mid 1950s, he spent two happy years as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to a battalion of the 10th Gurkha Rifles and developed a lifelong admiration, respect and affection for the Gurkha soldiers and their families. There he also trained with the SAS as a parachutist and later carried out operations as a jungle “tree jumper”, parachuting into trees and descending down a rope. However, he declined an invitation to join the regiment permanently.

During the army he continued playing rugby, was in the winning team in the Malay seven-a-side tournament and played for the Far East Combined Services against Fiji.

Returning home, he became a surgical registrar in Dunfermline and, in 1959, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Although he enjoyed surgery immensely, his time in Dunfermline was interrupted twice: once when he was recalled to the army during the Suez Crisis and again when he required months of convalescence after a severe attack of hepatitis.

In poor physical condition, he decided to do everything possible to return to full fitness to play rugby again. As a result he re-trained as a radiologist at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and played for Stewart’s once more – described by one Sunday paper as “the Jackie Kyle of Scottish rugby”.

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He also met a beautiful, talented radiographer, Diana, who became his wife in 1961. They had three children, the eldest of whom, Michael, was killed in a skiing accident in 1989.

A Fellow of the Royal College of Radiologists, Mahaffy spent a year in Stockholm on a research scholarship at Karolinska Hospital, then one of the world’s leading centres of radiological research, and pioneered and developed the radiological technique of lymphography.

Back in Edinburgh, he was appointed lecturer in radiology and in 1965 he became consultant radiologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. There he continued his research, publishing many papers and contributing to medical textbooks. He also sat on the board of examiners in London.

In 1973, when Princess Anne fell off her horse during a world championship equestrian event in Kiev and was flown to Aberdeen, he was the consultant radiologist who X-rayed her and diagnosed her shoulder injury.

Throughout his career he remained a pioneer of and a great enthusiast for the new technique of vascular intervention. He investigated the possibilities of intra-lymphatic injections of radioactive material into the lymph vessels draining sites of skin tumours, as a method of preventing secondary spread to the regional lymph nodes.

But his research interests also spread to many other fields.

As a result of investigations on hundreds of patients, he wrote widely on the importance of pelvic veins as a source of major pulmonary embolism and produced papers on subjects as diverse as the investigation of the thymus gland in diseases of autoimmune origin and of the kidneys in acute renal failure.

In spite of such an academic background, he always considered himself a more physical than intellectual person.

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He spent many years renovating and extending the family home in Bieldside and eventually turned his hobby into a lifestyle when, in 1979, he bought a small derelict farm on the outskirts of Peterculter.

He converted a steading into a new family home and, helped by his wife, brought the farm back to life. He found great contentment, over 30 years, breeding his small cattle herd, growing crops, building, digging, mending and generally improving the property.

In Aberdeen, with his rugby playing days behind him, he took up squash, becoming one of the first members of Aberdeen Squash Racquets Club. He was the club’s veteran champion for many years and won the Scottish veteran title, described as “surely the fittest 60-year-old ever seen in the competition”.

He was also a curler, horseman and a sailor with yacht master certificate who, in 1986 along with friends, sailed the Atlantic from Alicante to Antigua, a trip that didn’t go down too well with his wife as their silver wedding anniversary fell mid-Atlantic.

A keen skier, he enforced strict rules during holidays on the slopes: up on the first ski lift in the morning, and the last down in the evening, followed by a round robin game of squash, a swim and then dinner and drinks into the night.

A man of incredible stamina, he was a dedicated hillwalker and thought nothing of following a full day out on the hills with a game of squash.

He climbed all the Munros twice, taking in the Tops and Corbetts on the second occasion and, though a sociable character, particularly enjoyed being alone in remote country in bad weather and poor visibility.

He trekked and climbed extensively internationally, summiting Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, reaching Everest base camp and climbing Island and Mera Peaks, a challenging 20,000ft Himalayan ascent, plus Mont Blanc.

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He was 65 when he was asked to join the Everest expedition. If successful he would have been the world’s oldest person to reach the summit. His consolation was to climb another iconic peak, the Matterhorn, which he recorded he had “nipped up... in a very fast time”, aged 70.

Latterly his enthusiasm was for rhododendrons, creating a rhododendarium of up to 180 different species and hybrids at his home.

An intellectual, an athlete and a farmer who loved nothing better than digging drains and delivering calves, he was man who achieved a great balance and who woke each day thinking about the positive things in life.

He is survived by his wife Diana, children Andrew and Linda and five grandchildren.