THINGS THAT MATTER: Sir Ken Stuart – an illustrious West Indian

Sir Kenneth Stuart, a founding father of the University of the West Indies’ distinguished Medical Faculty, passed away on November the 11th in London, at the noble age of 97. He played a major role in the achievement of that distinction by the university during his tenure there from 1952 to 1976, when he was appointed Medical Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat.

When I flouted my headmaster’s advice in 1962 and chose the young University of the West Indies to study medicine, my father gave me the names of three Barbadians at the Mona Campus in Jamaica who he said I must “report to”. One of them was the then Dr. Ken Stuart, who had already made a name for himself in ten short years as a medical researcher. But even before I could seek him out in his office I met him across the tennis net in the Freshmen versus Faculty tennis match in the first week. We were beaten – he was good! And he advised me to work on my backhand …

He was one of the world leaders in the field of hypertension, and although I didn’t anticipate it at the time, his inspiration in understanding and managing hypertension was to play a major part in my own medical specialty and career. And so it was a great privilege to present him for an Honorary DSC from our University in 1999. Here is a shortened version of my citation then:

“Chancellor, I present Sir Kenneth Stuart, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) of Queen’s University, Belfast, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and of London, Fellow of the American College of Physicians, Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, Fellow of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine … He SURELY is a jolly good Fellow! He receives fellowships the way other men get haircuts.

Kenneth Lamonte Stuart was born on June 16th, many, many years ago, into a deeply religious home in Bank Hall. He learnt his three Rs at the famous Wesley Hall Boys’ School under the legendary Charles F. Broome, and proceeded to Harrison College. There he was part of that sixth form galaxy that included Sir Roy Marshall, Sir Carlisle Burton, Sir James Tudor and National Hero the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow. He played cricket and football, of course, but his great physique was acquired by swimming for miles off Brighton Beach, in the company of Sir Carlisle.

He won the Barbados Scholarship of 1940 in classics, and after a BA at McGill in classics and philosophy, he went on to study medicine in Belfast, paving the way for other great classical scholars like Sir George Alleyne, Dr. Richie Haynes and Dr. Oscar Jordan to transmutate from arts to science. He graduated in 1948 and wasted no time gaining a diploma in Tropical Medicine and the Royal College Memberships. In “two twos” – four years to be exact – he was appointed Senior Registrar at the new University College Hospital of the West Indies in Jamaica, in 1952. A year later he became Lecturer in Medicine and was promoted at great speed, to become the first West Indian Professor of Medicine, in 1966.

His career as researcher, teacher and international consultant can be divided, like Gaul, into three parts. The first is the glorious early period of UWI, the founding years, from 1952 to ‘66. He relished the challenge of blazing a trail and the wealth of research to be done. Like a medical King Midas, everything he touched turned to gold. First came the description, with Bras and Jelliffe, of Veno-occlusive Disease of the liver, or V.O.D., an aggressive liver disease killing Jamaican children. It was caused by a popular bush tea made from the herb crotalaria retusa – one of the many popular cure-alls of our grandmothers!

This was followed by the discovery of a toxin, hypoglycine A, in the UNRIPE Jamaican ackee, cause of the feared vomiting sickness. Sir Ken tells how Lady Standard, then Sister Francis, arranged a special bedroom on the paediatric ward for him, so he could do emergency liver biopsies on these babies, at any hour of night. A Ministry of Health education unit was set up to educate the public about these two dreaded diseases, finally solved. There is no better demonstration in the world of the impact of research on public health, of the benefits of health education, and of partnership between medical researchers and Ministry of Health.

The next ten years saw a steady flow of papers on malnutrition, rheumatic fever, cardiomyopathies and high blood pressure, and recognition on the world scene. He criss-crossed the globe with the medical jet set. I remember an issue of the medical student magazine, the Stethoscope, which reported under News: “Professor Ken Stuart visited the Department of Medicine this month”.

The second part of his career combined that international reputation abroad with his role at Mona, as Dean and Head of the Department of Medicine. He promoted teaching in Barbados and Trinidad, and led the development of our own postgraduate programmes. Abroad, he was made a member of the WHO Expert Panel on Cardiovascular Disorders, Chairman of their Committee for Control of Hypertension, Honorary Lecturer at Harvard and Member of the Board of the London School of Hygiene.

And so in 1976 it was a natural step to move fully on to the World Stage, and into the third phase of his career, first as Medical Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat and then Consultant Adviser to the Wellcome Trust, Chairman of the Court of Governors of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine, and member of the Board of Governors of the IDRC, Chairman of the Caribbean Health Research Council, consultant to the World Bank, and prestigious Gresham Professor of Physic, to name just a few of his many important roles. He was knighted by Her Majesty the Queen in 1977 for services to medicine in the Caribbean and the Commonwealth.

Sir Ken’s secret of success has been his canny ability to convert thought into action and action into words. Many an academic career has foundered at the mere thought of action, or at the effort of writing well. Many have the urge to write but lie down until the urge passes. Sir Ken has taken to heart the lines of both W.H.Auden and the Elizabethan poet Francis Bacon. Auden wrote:

“Those who will not reason perish in the Act –
Those who will not act perish for that reason.”

Bacon wrote:

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

These are the marks of scholarship, which Sir Ken mastered in full measure, and the third phase of his work continues at the same pace as 20 years ago. He is re-writing the message of health promotion, which he takes to heart himself, and which gives him the gift of eternal youth. He has taken his messages to all corners of the globe – and although quintessentially Barbadian, he is now very much a citizen of planet Earth, crossing oceans more easily than most of us can find our way to Boscobel. Chancellor, I beg you to receive a distinguished doctor, a celebrated scholar, a renowned researcher, a Brighton boy, a Bajan Bard and Caribbean luminary, a light out of the West, and confer on Kenneth Lamonte Stuart the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.”

Sir Ken continued his many activities – academic, consulting and even tennis well into the last decade of his life. The passing of this illustrious Bajan, West Indian and Citizen of the World at the glorious age of 97 is testament to a life of extraordinary energy and passion – physical strength and activity combined with mental creativity of the highest order. The sympathy of his thousands of colleagues and former students goes out to his wife Lady Barbara and his three brilliant children – Andrea, Steven and Lynda.

Andrea, a well-known writer and cultural historian (and author of Sugar in the Blood), shared with me a delightful story of Sir Ken: “Many years ago, he met a man whose last name was Flynn. My Dad immediately said “Ah I know that name.” The man sighed and said, ‘you probably have heard of my son Errol Flynn, the film actor.’ My Dad replied, “No. But I do know an illustrious biochemist of that name.” The man put his arm around him and said, “That is the first time anyone recognised my name rather than that of my son.” The pair remained friends for many years.”

(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website:

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