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An appreciation of Dr Ruth Hutchinson


Ruth Hutchinson was someone of whom you could truly claim “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”.

My wife and I first met Ruth when she came over to Malawi in 1991. She had driven over from Parirenyatwa Hospital, Harare, to see our Clinical Officer Training programme and visit 16 district hospitals. At that time this was a troublesome journey as Mozambique was still in civil war and you had to cross from Zimbabwe with military escort.

Later she embarked on that most memorable achievement, organising the 1st All Africa Anaesthesia Congress in 1997. I still wear the T-Shirt, brightly coloured after 23 years; Ruth chose the maker wisely which was not easy then (or even now).

It may be less well known that her Zimbabwean head of department had just cleared off to Canada and ‘volunteered’ her for the job on 2 minutes notice. She had no previous experience of such events, used no professional congress organiser but rose to the challenge and did it singlehandedly, brilliantly, without antagonising anyone or wasting a penny. Her house on Charles Bullock Ave in Harare became the de-facto nerve centre, printing and storage facility preparing for the Congress. In her study she introduced me to a young man that she had just found ‘who knows about computers’ and could do the IT. She could delegate, had insight, superb judgement and above all humility. Plenty of lessons for us all there.

In my view the success of the 1997 AAAC remains unsurpassed and I like to think her earlier Malawi visit informed her down-to-earth approach to the event.

Our family visited her many times in Harare and she also came over to Malawi to see us, one time on her way through to Mozambique where she had village projects helping people in the neglected north eastern provinces. She drove her unwieldy long wheel base Landrover over terrible roads even in the wet season and always with her life-long friend and companion Margaret who died some years ago.

She also gave freely of her time as an external examiner on the Malawi Anaesthetic Clinical Officer training course.

Latterly, post Africa, she visited us in France and we saw her once in her retirement home on Hayling Island back in England. Margaret had been her neighbour there also. Before coming to Zimbabwe, Ruth had been a consultant at Poole General Hospital and I asked her once if this African adventure meant she had departed the UK for good. “Oh no”, she said, “old age care is much better back home”. And so it proved to be.

We corresponded but my recent emails to Ruth have gone answered, with no Christmas cards of late so the sad news of her death after such a long and eventful life was not a complete surprise.

Ruth surely deserves the premier place in the Anaesthesia Heroes Hall of Fame lest her great, significant but humble life be forgotten.

She showed us all how to do it.

Paul Fenton

Formerly in Malawi 1986-2001