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Simpson-Smith, Alexander

Alexander Simpson Smith was born in Huddersfield in 1900, the only boy in a family of four children. Both of his parents were deeply religious and this had an effect on his later life, which was dedicated to truth and devoted service to others. Unfortunately at the early age of 3 years he was burnt following an attempt to boil a kettle for a doll’ s tea party. In 1903 the treatment for burns was unsophisticated, with regular changing of dressings, which was very painful as anaesthetics were not being given and early skin grafting was not established. Sepsis was an inevitable sequel. Alexander Simpson Smith’ s life lay in jeopardy and at one stage amputation of his arm was considered; his father refused consent, preferring that his son should die rather than suffer such an humiliation. Fortunately Alex survived, but with a crippled hand and scarring of the body. This long illness at an early vulnerable age must have had a marked effect upon him. He was determined to overcome his handicaps and to excel in manual skills. This was shown by his athletic success at school and university and in his later surgical career. At school he was head boy, captain of shooting, and in the cricket and football 1st XIs. At university he learned to play rugger, gained a place in the Guy’ s Hospital 1st XV, and played several times for Surrey.

In 1919 Simpson Smith went to Cambridge with an exhibition in mathematics but intent on studying medicine. He passed his Tripos with 3rd Class Honours, and went on to Guy’ s Hospital, qualifying in 1925. In 1930 he took his M.Chir and headed the list of candidates in this examination. His surgical training culminated in his appointment in May 1934 as Honorary Surgeon to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and in 1934 as Assistant Surgeon to the West London Hospital. Thus by 1939 he was established as a consulting surgeon with every sign of becoming a leading figure in British Surgery. A few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War he had married the younger daughter of Captain T. B. Davis, the owner of the famous racing schooner Westward

Alexander Simpson Smith 1900-1942 by Thomas Twistington Higgins. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 1978, vol 60


Obituary Notice

T/LT Col Alexander Simpson-Smith, R.A.M.C.

We regret to announce the death at the age of 42 of Alexander Simpson-Smith who was shot after his third attempted escape from Tobruk in July 1942.  He lies buried at Halfaya Sollum.

Simpson-Smith was gazetted a Major in the R.A.M.C. soon after the outbreak of war and went out to the Middle East in January, 1941.  He served in Cairo and later in Tobruk where he was captured by the Germans in June 1942.  For his work there he was mentioned in despatches.  While a prisoner, he did all the surgical work that he possibly could, and then made the attempts to escape which ultimately cost him his life.

Simpson-Smith entered the school in May 1913, and when he left in July 1919, he was Captain of School, A/CSM in the then OTC, in the 1st XI's for football and cricket and Head of Lion House (now Mountgarrets).  He obtained a mathematical exhibition at Selwyn College, Cambridge, but on going into residence immediately followed his heartfelt desire to study medicine. From that time on he lived his subject, with tireless energy, unbounded enthusiasm, and an insatiable curiosity.  He took his BA in 1922, MA in 1925 and went on to Guy's Hospital where he finally qualified and became FRCS in 1929 and MChir Cambridge in 1930.  In 1930 he studied at the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland, USA and at the Massachusetts General Hospital, as a Richardson Research Fellow.  After his return to London he was granted a Research Fellowship by the Royal College of Surgeons.  He held many hospital appointments, including surgical officer at Guy's, surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, and at the West London Hospital.   To his skill as a surgeon, which is mirrored in his written contributions to journals, he allied a marked ingenuity to which several new surgical instruments and techniques invented by him bear witness.

To his contemporaries at school, the death of "Sandy" Simpson-Smith will come as a deep shock, particularly after such a short life so full of achievement and promising so much in the future. He will always be remembered as a charming and forceful, but not forcing personality.  He had outstanding courage both physical and moral.  Of the former may be cited the two occasions when he entered the boxing ring, each time against an opponent heavier and stronger than himself.  The result was a foregone conclusion to everyone - except himself.  His moral courage will be remembered in connection with reforms he carried through as Captain of School at the risk of his own popularity - which to him as nothing in the light of the rightness of his cause.  He had a tenacious perseverance in overcoming difficulties which would swamp lesser men.   One example, but an outstanding one, must suffice.  An accident in early childhood damaged his right hand.  That with most people would jeopardise a medical career and certainly ruin all prospects of a surgical career.  Not so with Simpson-Smith.  While continuing his medical training, he underwent a series of seemingly endless operations on his right hand until finally he could not only operate perfectly with it, but he had also trained himself to use his left hand with equal dexterity.

An anecdote must suffice to illustrate the regard in which he was held and standing he had as Captain of School.  One morning, about half an hour before school was to begin, he went to the Headmaster (the Rev M Pearson) and asked that the first period of lessons be cancelled so that he could undertake a serious investigation.  No additional explanation was offered; none was asked for.  The lessons were cancelled forthwith.  Few schoolboys would have the initiative and courage to make such a request: few would be held so highly by their Headmaster.

Those who were privileged to be at school with him will always remember "Sandy" Simpson-Smith for his unbounded cheerfulness and enthusiasm as well as for his serious and conscientious purpose in all tasks he undertook.  His outstanding personality impressed on all with whom he came into contact.  There is no doubt that England and English surgery has suffered a serious loss by his death. 

Simpson-Smith was married in July, 1939, to Margueritte Alice, younger daughter of the late Mr and Mrs T B F Davis of Jersey and Durban, South Africa, to whom we offer our deepest sympathy. 

Worksop College Magazine, 1946



First name(s)Alexander
Date of birth1900
Place of birthHuddersfield Registration District
Family details

Son of Thomas & Jessie Simpson-Smith. Husband of Marguerite Simpson-Smith of East Finchley Middlesex

Previous educationWorksop College
CollegeGuy's Hospital
Dates at college1929
Dept / courseFinal F.R.C.S.

M.A. (Nat. Sci. Tripos) Cantab; M.B., B.Ch.(Cantab) 1925, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., Lond. 1925; F.R.C.S. Eng. 1929; MS; M.Chir 1930

Military unitRoyal Army Medical Corps
Service number101028
War / conflictWorld War Two (1939-1945)
Date of death13 July 1942
Age at death42
Rank at deathLieutenant Colonel
Place of deathnear Tobruk
Cause of deathkilled in action
Burial placeHalfaya, Sollum War Cemetery
Commemoration(s)Guy’ s Memorial

In 1939 his address was 77 Harley Street, London W1
There is an Alexander Simpson Smith Memorial Lectureship, endowed by his widow and sister, set up in 1947. This supports a visiting professor who gives the Simpson Smith lecture every autumn at Charing Cross Hospital and a similar lecture at Great Ormond Street in June. There is also an Alexander Simpson Smith Travelling Fellowship


Guy’ s Hospital Medical School Records, King’ s College London Archives; Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Alexander Simpson Smith 1900-1942 by Thomas Twistington Higgins. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 1978, vol 60.; Worksop College Magazine; additional information contributed by Simon Langley

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