Anthony Ryle’s father, John Alfred Ryle, was a doctor in both general and hospital practice, as well as teacher and researcher at universities. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was Professor of Physic at Cambridge, and after a stint at Guy’s Hospital during the Blitz, he was appointed to the new post of Professor of Social Medicine at Oxford. He was a life-
It was a point of principle with him that doctors should reach out beyond their specialist disciplines and engage with any issue affecting the well-
In the 1920s and ‘30s he published a number of articles on specialist topics in medical journals, and as the ideas for reforming British health institutions developed during the war he also wrote more general articles about medical education and health policy. His view of the breadth of interest doctors should take in human well-
His book, Professor Ryle wrote, was ‘for ordinary men and women who in this, “their finest hour,” yet find themselves groping sometimes in the blackout of the mind for a match or a torch to guide them towards a friendly door’. It was, however, written from a particular point of view, offering ‘prescriptions both for natural and superstitious fears’. Some of the latter are obviously the stock in trade of traditional religions. He hopes his prescriptions ‘may bring somewhat of help and comfort both to those who accept and those who cannot accept the tenets of the churches’, and he sets out what is, by implication, his own position: ‘The agnostic or rationalist ... is not necessarily an irreligious person. He is only anti-
Death and pain and fear ... are necessities. They have their place and use in the general scheme of the universe. Had pain or fear been omitted it would not have been possible for the higher species to survive on earth. Without death there could have been no life. They are things to be studied and understood, not shelved or shunned or made into mysteries. The better we understand them the fewer mistakes we shall make and the more wisely we shall meet them. Indeed, a wider knowledge of these and other biological forces and of their proper management will help us at last to eradicate the great mistake of war.
Thoughts about death and religion also feature in Anthony’s diary, but they are not just private speculations. He discussed religion—or rather his opposition to it—with other boys and masters at school. Sometimes it interfered seriously with his relations with both boys and masters. He discussed his father’s article ‘Of Death and Dying’, which had appeared in the Lancet, and was later included in Fears may be Liars, with a teacher, who gave Anthony a relevant, but unnamed, book (entry for 29 Oct. 1940). He noticed that a more senior boy—one with whom he discussed his atheism—was reading a magazine with an item about his father’s article. (27 Feb. 1941). He recorded that ‘Daddy’s “Fears may be Liars” has been put in the Biology Lab.’ (20 July 1941). His father’s writing thus gave a context beyond school for these conversations.
Here is the article ‘Of death and dying’.
Anthony noted in his diary for 17 Mar 1942 that he had received an ‘article by Daddy on State medicine—very good’. It was an article from the British Medical Journal entitled ‘A whole-
John Ryle was a member of the Medical Planning Commission, set up in 1940 by the main professional bodies concerned with the work of hospitals and general practice, to consider the evolution of a policy for post-
a national system planned and organized to secure a more equitable distribution of health services, better co-
His views on the subject, including developments ‘to be introduced gradually with a system of five-
There was considerable resistance to John Ryle’s idea for a medical service which would eventually be entirely nationalised, and an argumentative correspondence followed his BMJ article. The article can be found here: ‘A whole-
John Ryle’s ideas about the organisation of a health service and on the practice of social medicine were consistent with each other, but they were independent. Most of his writing during the war years was intended to encourage an interest in social medicine as an element of medical practice in general, regardless of any precise arrangements for healthcare, and he was at pains to distinguish social medicine from the far more controversial issue of a state medical service.
An idea of the outlook on medicine which he hoped to promote in his teaching and writing can be gathered from the passages out of articles and letters to the press collected here: on social medicine.