Ian McGregor, HAGA’s Clinical Director and our first ever employee, remembers Alex Paton, without whom HAGA might not be here.
Alex Paton who died earlier this year was a Consultant Physician who played a significant role in the formation and growth of HAGA. As a gastroenterologist, Alex had over the length of his career seen the impact of heavy drinking on the illnesses and conditions that his patients presented with. He spent much of his life agitating for doctors to do more about alcohol than just treat the results of a lifetime of drinking too much.
Alex’s background was a very interesting one and his was, in many ways, a twentieth-century life. He was born in India where his father was an officer in the Indian Army. Alex was sent back to England to boarding school and hardly saw his parents until he left school. He went on to train as a doctor and was a medical student when the Second World War started. He started work in London at St Thomas’ Hospital during the Blitz. In 1945, he was sent to Germany and was with the British Forces when they entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Belsen was the first concentration camp to be liberated and it provides many of the images by which the world came to know the full horror of The Holocaust. Alex spent three months at Belsen working with a team of doctors trying to save the surviving inmates who were suffering from malnutrition, TB, Dysentery and Typhus, which had spread rapidly in the camp. He wrote about this in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and it was also the subject of a television docudrama a few years ago.
After the war, Alex was in the first intake of doctors into the newly formed NHS and had a lifelong commitment to its values and very much eschewed the activities of many of his colleagues who when becoming consultants spent much of their time working in private practise to the detriment, he felt, of their NHS work. He then worked in Iraq for many years as a Medical Advisor to the Iraqi government but had to leave rapidly as Saddam came to power and drove back to London from Baghdad in an old Volvo he had bought there.
After working in Birmingham for many years, Alex came to work in Haringey firstly at the Prince of Wales Hospital and subsequently at St Ann’s Hospital when it still had medical wards. He also became Postgraduate Medical Dean for North West Thames at this time, which was a very suitable role for Alex as he was a great mentor to young doctors and I doubt there was one he encountered whom he did not turn into what he described as an “alcohol enthusiast.”
At the inception of HAGA, Alex along with other concerned local people formed the first Trustee Board for the charity and took on the role of its first chairman, something that took a bit arm twisting as he was not someone who had a lot of patience for committee work or spending his time in meetings. He secured a suite of offices in St Ann’s as accommodation for HAGA, which allowed us to move from the one room we had in the Community Health Council Offices on Tottenham High Road. Alex was extremely influential in promoting the service and helping it to survive and develop at a time when its funding was very precarious; much more so than it is now, as hard as that may be to believe.
Even after retiring, Alex kept up his interest in alcohol and was a prodigious contributor to the BMJ and other publications on alcohol. He was Medical Advisor to Alcohol Concern and wrote a regular article in its magazine. He also edited the ABC of Alcohol, a popular guide for doctors on services and treatments available for alcohol problems.
Over the course of his career, Alex was, in my view, one of the most significant contributors both nationally and locally to putting alcohol on the agenda as one of the most pressing public health issues of our time.