D is for Bertrand Dawson

This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.

Bertrand Edward DawsonBertrand Dawson was a renowned physician, a peer of the realm, a pioneer the National Health Service and also the last person to commit regicide in the UK – or at least the last one that we know of.

Dawson was born in Croydon in 1864, the son of an architect, and graduated with a medical degree from the Royal London Hospital in 1893.

In 1907, Dawson joined the royal household as a physician-extraordinary to King Edward VII, an office he held until 1910 when he was promoted to a physician-in-ordinary under King George V.

With the outbreak of WWI, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps with the rank of colonel and served on the Western Front until 1919, rising to the rank of Major-General.

On his return to civilian life, Dawson chaired the Consultative Council on Medical and Allied Services on the Future Provision of Medical and Allied Services. His report published in 1920 was extremely influential in the debate that ultimately led to the creation of the NHS in 1948.

Bertrand Edward Dawson in Time Magazine1920 was a good year for Dawson as it was also when he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Dawson of Penn to add to his growing list of honours which included appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1930.

However, it was later that Dawson found his unusual claim to fame. He had resumed his role as physician-in-ordinary to King George V after the war and on the night of 20 January 1936 the monarch lay dying of bronchitis.

Dawson took the decision to hasten the king’s demise with an injection of morphine and cocaine. By Dawson’s own admission, the king had not asked for this so it was effectively involuntary euthanasia.

Bizarrely, Dawson’s main reason to apply euthanasia was to ensure that the king’s death was timed so that its announcement should appear first in the morning edition of The Times and not in some lesser publication later in the day. To be doubly sure of this, he asked his wife to phone the paper with an advance warning prior to the lethal injection.

Viscount Dawson of PennEven more bizarrely, Dawson was an active opponent of euthanasia. In a debate in the House of Lords later the same year to legalise what we now might call ‘mercy killings’  he said that that euthanasia ‘belongs to the wisdom and conscience of the medical profession and not to the realm of law’. In other words, the doctor knows best!

Dawson’s ‘crime’ did not come to light until 1986 when his diaries were made public in which he openly admitted what he had done, described by one reviewer as an arrogant, convenience killing.

And if you are a fan of Homeland, you’ll be interested to know that Dawson is the great-grandfather of the actor, Damian Lewis.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

8 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 6th February 2013

    Such utter arrogance

  • Janis 6th February 2013

    Arrogant indeed! Apparently he was also proud to have written it all down for posterity.

  • Weird Pudding 6th February 2013

    I am a fan of “Homeland” – having seen each episode of the first two series – but I don’t care that Dawson of Penn was Damian Lewis’s great grandfather. Does that make me weird? Dawson was a miserable looking s.o.b. wasn’t he? Pehaps he should have kept the lethal injection for himself.

    • Mr Parrot 6th February 2013

      Can’t say I think much of his bedside manner.

  • rhymeswithplague 6th February 2013

    He is the very model of a modern major-general.

  • Reader Wil 6th February 2013

    It’s a story which can be used for a play! Shakespeare would have known what to do! Although he was not always correct about the kings and queens of Great Britain, see how he pictured Richard III.
    Thanks for this story!
    Wil, ABCW Team.

  • LadyInRead 6th February 2013

    Informative and interesting post on an infamous person!!

  • Leslie 6th February 2013

    hmmm…imagine that! Fascinating history of someone taking the law into his own hands.

    abcw team


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