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Hugh Gault Calwell (1901 - 1986):
Physician: parasitologist; medical historian

Hugh Gault Calwell was born in Duncairn Gardens, Belfast, at the home of his parents (William, his father, a doctor, practised in nearby York Street). The Calwell extended family constituted something of a medical dynasty in South Antrim where their forebears had farmed for generations, and it was assumed that Hugh would follow the family tradition, as many of his relatives had, including his father, and enter the medical profession; however at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) which he entered in September 1914, Hugh showed an outstanding linguistic and literary ability including a strong preference for the classics, and it was as a multiple prizeman in classics, modern languages and English literature (including the two Porter scholarships of £25 each and the Drennan Exhibition) and as head of the school that he entered Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in 1920, and it was to read classics and not science, still less medicine. As well as his studies he was active in student affairs and was elected President of the Students’ Union Society which as well as giving him problems gave him a seat ex officio on the University Senate, QUB’s governing body; while his scholarly activities led to a BA degree with first class honours in classics. The Calwell medical diathesis now showed its hand and he transferred to read for medicine which his father, his great-uncle, three uncles, an aunt, his two sisters and a brother had done and as his own two sons and other later Calwells and collaterals were to do. Any doubts as to his future career which may have lingered were dispelled in his final year (1929): in his own words:

Some time during my final year Sir John Megaw, Director-General of the Indian Medical Service [like Calwell an Instonian] visited Queen’s and addressed Professor Andrew Fullerton’s class. He painted such an attractive picture of his service that I spoke to him later about it.  Before sending my application to the India Office I chanced to meet Dr Peter Clearkin [later to be medical secretary of the QUB Faculty of Medicine] who was on leave from Tanganyika.  He suggested that I would have a better career in the Colonial Medical Service.

So it was this latter Service which Calwell joined after graduating MB (second-class honours) in 1929. 

 After secondment to take the Diploma of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (DTM&H) in 1931 he was posted to East Africa as a medical specialist in Trypanosomiasis, more specifically to Dar-es-Salaam as Assistant Bacteriologist in Peter Clearkin’s laboratory, and this led to his first publication and to his successful MD (QUB) thesis in 1935 (“Pathologico-anatomical observations on Rhodesian trypanosomiasis in the human brain”).

On the outbreak of the Second World War Calwell joined the King’s African Rifles, then transferred to the East African Medical Corps and finally to the RAMC with the rank of Major before being demobilised in 1946. He then spent a year as a Special Lecturer at the Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before re-settling in Belfast as a physician with the Northern Ireland Tuberculosis Authority and medical referee at the local Ministry of Health. In 1952 he became director of the BCG vaccination service and, in 1959, Physician-in-Charge of the yellow fever and BCG clinic in Belfast. He retired in 1966 aged 65. Retirement from his contractual obligations, however, did not mean time for leisure but time to indulge his long-held interest in local history which with his innate scholarship and literary abilities allowed him to produce a flow of important contributions to local history of which the most substantial was a history of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children from its origin in 1873 until 1948, and published in 1973, its centennial year, as “The Life and Times of a Voluntary Hospital: The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, 1873-1948” .This was based on his MA thesis of the previous year (which, to the surprise of the internal assessor at QUB, had been referred back by the external examiner at least once for re-writing!)  It is now the hospital’s standard history. Close on its heels was his invaluable biography of Dr Andrew Malcolm which was accompanied by a facsimile of Malcolm’s 1851 pioneer medical history of the present Royal Victoria Hospital “and the other Medical Institutions of the Town”, that is, Belfast. These and other publications made him the natural successor to Sydney Allison for the post of Honorary Archivist at RVH when Allison finally retired in 1978. Calwell held the post with skill and enthusiasm until his death at his home in Whitehead on 28 February 1986 aged 84 and after a two-year-long difficult illness. He had been awarded the DSc (honoris causa) from QUB in recognition of his professional and scholarly achievements, but because of the nature of his illness the proposed date of award which was to be the summer graduation of 1985 was advanced to the 1984 winter graduation. 


Hugh Calwell was short in stature, shy especially in unfamiliar company, often careless in dress and general appearance, but was possessed of an impressive intellect, a discipline of scrupulous scholarship and enthusiasm for pursuit of his academic interests and a taste for hard work. Although a committed medical practitioner he found time to exercise his skill in ancient Greek and Latin, especially where medical matters were at issue, and in 1975 he published his own translation from the Latin of Vincentin Ketalaer’s “A medical commentary on thrush in the Netherlands, or Belgian sprue”, originally published in Amsterdam in 1715. He married a former student colleague, Margaret Earls; they had two sons (both became doctors) and a daughter, all of whom survived him.

Born: 13 December 1901
Died: 28 February 1986
Peter Froggatt

The principal sources consulted are the present writer’s article (with JA Weaver) in Ulster Medical Journal, vol. 56, Supplement, pp, 39-40. August 1987; HG Calwell: “The Life and Times of a Voluntary Hospital: The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, 1873-1948” (Belfast: Brough, Cox and Dunn, 1973); HG Calwell: “Andrew Malcolm of Belfast, 1818-1856: Physician and Historian” (Belfast: Brough, Cox and Dunn, 1977); personal knowledge.