Scotsman Obituaries: David Reith, NHS administrator with a taste for adventure

David Reith, NHS administrator. Born: 11 April 1933 in Edinburgh. Died: 11 November 2022, aged 89

The only child of an Aberdonian father who was a partner in an engineering company in India, and a musically talented mother, Alan David Reith had an interesting childhood, moving to Jersey with his parents as a young boy only for them to be evacuated due to the imminent German invasion. The family moved to Ireland where his path unexpectedly – and terrifyingly – crossed with the formidable one-eyed, one-handed war hero Lieutenant-General Adrian Carton de Wiart VC KBE after he fired a toy arrow through his open window.

David attended Aravon Prep School near Bray in Ireland and later Cheltenham College. His schooling was cut short aged 14 when he contracted tuberculosis, resulting in years of lonely isolation, first on the Isle of Man and later in a sanatorium in Ruthven, Wales. The treatment at the time was primitive, with his quarters consisting of a solitary hut in the sanatorium grounds with windows open to the elements. An x-ray required so much electricity that lights dimmed on the premises. He eventually underwent radical curative chest surgery known as plombage in his late teens in Liverpool, and was one of the first patients to receive anti-tuberculous therapy following a pioneering 1948 clinical trial of streptomycin.

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Despite this challenging start and years of missed education, David was determined to go to university and persevered against the odds (and the Dean telling him he would never be successful) to gain a place at Edinburgh University, where he earned a BSc. His university years were marked with adventure, with David embracing the opportunity to become a very early member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, whistling his friends around Edinburgh and the Highlands in a much-prized A30, and even transporting his car on a plane to Le Bourget to then drive on to Switzerland. His love of being behind the wheel also resulted in him driving an ambulance loaded with toys and donations from Edinburgh University to Vienna across the Alps amidst treacherous blizzards as part of a humanitarian effort to help child refugees caught up in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, mid Cold-War.

David Reith overcame an early bout of TB to live a full and happy life

Perhaps as a result of his years marked by illness and the insights that afforded him, David joined the National Health Service as one of its first trainees, leading to a long career in hospital administration. In those days, hospital management training entailed rotating through numerous departments – not only the wards, but operating theatres, kitchens, boiler room, laboratories and more. He moved to London to work at the Maudsley and later St Thomas’ and Bart’s Hospitals in the late 1960s, later running a district in East London during a highly challenging period of national strikes, IRA bombings and the three-day week. On one occasion the police demanded he stay on hospital premises after admission of an injured suspected terrorist, resulting in him sleeping overnight in an operating room.

While in London he learned to sail, undertaking navigation lessons at The Little Ship Club in the City of London. David also went to The Alps to ski, which at 6ft 3in involved unfathomably long skis at the time! He co-owned a trimaran with a Naval friend, which they sailed across the Irish Sea and later around the coast of Scotland. At this time of increased air travel, he visited Massachusetts General Hospital in the States to learn from their early IT systems. More daringly, he visited the former USSR including Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent with Russian tour operator InTourist. He was alarmed to find this entailed boarding a Russian aircraft with balding tyres, and a cabin door that fell off on being shut by the pilot. His fears were not allayed by the air hostess smiling at him through a row of stainless steel teeth.

The eventful journey continued as an earthquake erupted whilst in Tashkent, and on having to return early on his own for a job interview in London, he was disconcerted to discover that his return trip to the airport involved a transfer via a limousine with blacked-out windows.

David met future wife Sheila at a party in London and they wed two years later in 1968. They initially lived in London where Sheila was a consultant physician at St George’s Hospital, but their joint love of Scotland saw them move to Glasgow in 1976, with David becoming a senior hospital administrator for the Western District of Glasgow.

David was a technically minded and able man, loving trains, aircraft, watches and engineering, and was the proud owner of several 2CVs over his life. He built a Mirror dinghy and two skeleton clocks, and in the 1980s he and Sheila undertook the restoration of a 200-year-old derelict manse in Bridge of Allan, making it into a family home. Despite having never tried renovation or DIY, he installed a septic tank, water main and kitchen, and gifted Sheila a bathroom he tiled himself as a birthday present, complete with ribbon-cutting opening ceremony.

In retirement he remained active intellectually, graduating with a French degree from the University of Stirling aged 70 having attended classes with students in their 20s (and being nominated class representative). He also took up painting and writing classes, penning many a story. He was a wonderful raconteur with an infectious sense of humour, able to deliver a tale or joke with a perfect punchline, and a gifted cartoonist, often delighting friends and family with amusing cards.

Despite his huge talents, David was a humble man. He was a true gentleman who was immensely kind, warm hearted and generous, and exceptionally loving to his family. He tragically lost his beloved eldest daughter Fiona aged 38 to complications of type 1 diabetes, but is survived by Sheila, daughter Kirsty, son Alistair and three grandchildren.

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