Central Middlesex Hospital’s ambulatory care and diagnostic centre (ACAD) celebrates its 20th anniversary next week. We’ll be taking a look back at some of the staff who helped shape the hospital.
Dr Richard Asher was described as a modern-day Don Quixote who substituted charging windmills for an often staid and conservative medical establishment.
His personal life was as colourful as his professional one including sharing a house with one of the Beatles and having children who included a film star and pop idol.
Asher, who was regarded as one of foremost medical thinkers of his time, spent most of his career at Central Middlesex Hospital during the post-war years.
He was a champion of evidence based medicine long before it was a twinkle in the NHS’s eye and warned of the danger of labelling patients saying unsuitable medical names ‘perpetuate illness, syndromes and signs whose existence is doubtful.’
Asher’s recommendation for ‘letting off steam and entertaining others’ was to write ‘fiery letters in the columns of medical journals on perennially controversial subjects.’
He took his own advice with a talent for eye-catching headlines in a series of medical papers including The dangers of going to bed, The dog in the night-time, The Seven Sins of medicine and Why are medical journals so dull?
His lectures proved equally thought-provoking for students including Sir Roger Bannister, Oliver Sacks and Jonathan Miller.
The Dangers of going to bed highlighted the health problems associated with prolonged hospitalisation.
Asher painted a lurid but medically accurate picture of an individual with ‘the blood clotting in his veins, the stools stacking up in his colon, the flesh rotting on his buttocks and the spirit evaporating from his soul.’
In the 1950s, he coined the term Munchausen’s Syndrome to describe a mental condition where patients repeatedly admitted themselves to hospital falsely claiming to ill.
It attracted widespread media attention including the Daily Express reporting on a woman called Elsie De Coverley who went to 17 hospitals over a four year period using nine aliases.
Asher believed communication was the greatest tool at a physician’s disposal saying: “It is a greater medical triumph to leave the patient feeling better but thinking little of the doctor than to leave him worse but deeply impressed.”
Lord Max Rosenheim compared his friend to a modern day Don Quixote doing battle with the conservatism and self-importance of the medical establishment
“I find it difficult to draw an adequate picture of this remarkable man. He was an eccentric in a world that was becoming increasingly uniform; he revelled in the clinical paradox and the unusual; and delighted in poking fun at authority and pomposity.”
Asher’s talents weren’t confined to medicine.
He was a polymath whose talents included amateur dramatics, playing the piano and writing. He even cemented a floor and re-glazed a window after an administrative delay at the hospital.
His children proved equally talented.
Paul McCartney, while Peter Actress Jane Asher starred in films including Alfie and The Winter’s Tale and dated
Asher was part of pop duo Peter and Gordon which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with A World without Love.
Asher died in 1964 but was fondly remembered by colleagues who said he ‘illuminated many dark corners’ and was ‘endowed with generosity, natural charm and kindness.”
This empathy included the younger generation who he defended in the Press saying: “There is no teenage problem, just a middle-aged problem of how to stop middle-aged people from thinking there is a teenage problem.”