Tony Smith

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 10 March 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b983
  1. Stephen Lock

    BMJ deputy editor who changed medical and lay attitudes

    When Tony Smith qualified in 1959 the medical enlightenment was still far away, for doctors and laypeople. Fifty years later he had been behind many of the important changes, through his constant proselytising in medical journals, popular books, and newspapers. Thus medicine is now a subject of normal conversation; no longer are, say, patients with leukaemia fobbed off with a diagnosis of anaemia, and they are asked to help with decisions on their own treatment.

    Though Tony’s first two books for the public were about family planning, he switched the emphasis to more general themes, jointly authoring The Medical Risks of Life for Penguin and The Family Health Guide for Reader’s Digest. This targeting of the public was highlighted when he became medical correspondent of the Times, at the same time as being an editor at the BMJ, throwing the journal’s influence behind developments such as David Steel’s Abortion Act and the debate over the ethical dilemmas of organ transplantation.

    Born in 1934 to a working class family in Coventry, Tony was evacuated to a foster home for five years to escape the blitz, winning scholarships first to the grammar school and then to New College, Oxford, to read law under the great jurist A L Goodhart. He decided to resist the temptation to devote his life to professional bridge. He changed from law to medicine. And he went to the London Hospital for clinical training. He held a series of junior appointments, largely in peripheral hospitals that had all too recently been workhouses—postings that ensured that his career in hospital medicine would go little further, as did his refusal to care for one consultant’s private patients without payment.

    Given his experience in editing the London Hospital journal and freelance work, Tony was a natural choice for assistant editor at the BMJ in October 1965. He was to work for the journal for the next 35 years. Tony never wanted any credit for his achievements. Behind the scenes he championed signed editorials; statistical evaluation of articles; and a selection committee for papers, copying the Royal Academy by naming it the “hanging committee.” He was the first Minerva, transforming the page into one of the BMJ’s most imitated features, and throughout his career he could rapidly skim an arcane article in an obscure journal and render its message in four lines. When asked how he wrote so quickly and clearly he replied, “The first million words were the worst.” In fact, throughout his career he thought long and deeply before putting down his thoughts and hardly ever needed to make any changes.

    After working at the Times for some time Tony disagreed with the new editor Harold Evans. Evans wanted medicine on the front page as often as possible, but Tony thought that only big stories deserved such prominence. He was sacked from the Times in the mid-1970s, which left him heartbroken. He turned to other outlets, particularly the BMA’s Family Doctor booklets, forging an influential alliance with Dorling Kindersley and masterminding a series of illustrated popular books. Accurate but not scary and written by the best specialists, these sold in their thousands.

    The good things

    A lifelong left winger, Tony nevertheless loved the good things in life. He dressed well, enjoyed food and wine, and had a series of elegant homes—a detached house in Blackheath; a terraced house near Regent’s Park, with neighbours including Alan Bennett and Angus Wilson; and a large rectory in Suffolk. Yet he was no champagne socialist, hating Tony Blair as much as Margaret Thatcher and what he saw as New Labour’s betrayal of the left, with its preoccupation with money and the rich. Tony wanted everybody to share life’s delights.

    After his divorce he spent much of his final years with Inga, his partner, in Norway, a country with a high standard of living but considerable egalitarianism and almost first in the happiness stakes. And when for the BMJ’s 150th anniversary edition he had to choose whom to interview, he selected Sir George Godber, “probably the best chief medical officer ever” in the words of the recent BMJ obituary and somebody who shared Tony’s concern with the needs of the underprivileged (doi:10.1136/bmj.b710). Perhaps all this reflected a degree of naivety. When Tony returned from a trip to China in 1976, he resisted all criticisms of Mao, arguing how much the regime had done for its people’s health.

    Although handsome, Tony could look remote and rarely broke into a full smile, but there was a twinkle behind the eyes—and those in the office inevitably approached him first to solve their problems. His obsession was sailing, his heroes Captains James Cook and Joshua Slocum. The civilised life entailed reading novels—one in 10 might change the reader’s world outlook. He said that he could get through one in an evening and would then give it away. And he adored pictures: “Don’t put any surplus money in a bank,” he would say, “go to William Weston and get the best Matisse print you can afford.”

    Cheshire cat

    At his retirement party in 1990 Tony said that he wanted to be like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat and disappear gradually. He achieved his ambition, continuing to work at the BMJ throughout the 1990s, filling in wherever it was needed, and writing for and advising Dorling Kindersley and other publications. Then, developing Parkinson’s disease which became progressively worse, he admitted himself to a nursing home in Suffolk. Last June he went out for a stroll and failed to return. Despite an extensive search his body was not found until a walker discovered it in nearby woodland on 1 March this year.

    Tony married Evelyn Mary Adey, and had three children.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b983


    • Anthony John Smith, former deputy editor, BMJ (b 1934; q London Hospital 1959) died around 5 June 2008.

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