From Aeschylus to Aesculapius: How my father’s bravura performance as Clytemnestra led directly to him becoming a doctor and to my appearance on the world’s stage

by Jill Rose

(adapted from Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill’s Nurse, by Jill Rose, Foreword by the Hon Emma Soames. Amberley Press: 15 June 2018)

The son of a Presbyterian minister,  my father Roger Miles was blessed with an amiable personality, a wry sense of humour and a well-developed notion of fair play. He was an enthusiastic, though not exceptional, sportsman. He had spent his childhood in Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast, where he acquired his lifelong love of sailing and the sea.  As a young man he enjoyed horse-back riding, cricket, and playing tennis and golf with his siblings.

But he wasn’t just a jock.  Roger was a voracious reader with catholic tastes. As a teenager he attended Bradfield College in Berkshire where he was a classical scholar. Then, as now, Bradfield was renowned for its productions of  classic Greek drama, in Greek, which were presented in its own outdoor theatre (complete with tiers of uncomfortable stone seats). In June 1934, Roger was cast as Clytemnestra, the doomed queen of Mycenae, in the Agamemnonof Aeschylus. His bravura portrayal of a woman scorned was evidently convincing; ‘Clytemnestra’s passion’, said one reviewer, was ‘splendidly declaimed by Miss Miles’.

In the audience was Dr Charles Wilson, Dean of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. Roger’s dazzling performance led Wilson to declare that Roger would make a fine addition to St Mary’s Medical School, which was known for the quality of its dramatic productions as well as the quality of its doctors. Judging by the enthusiasm with which Clytemnestra wielded her knife, and by the  review in the Bradfield College Chroniclewhich noted, ‘ he [Roger]was much helped by the possession of beautiful and expressive hands’, he was obviously cut out to be a surgeon!

However, Wilson’s offer of a place at the Medical School was not as capricious as it sounds.

Charles Wilson had trained at St Mary’s before the First World War, when my maternal grandfather Harry Clayton Greene had been a surgeon and Dean of the Medical School. Wilsonserved with distinction in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the war, and in 1920 was himself appointed Dean.  He radically overhauled the sclerotic organisation,  and took major steps to improve the hospital’s ailing finances. Zachary Cope, in his 1954 history of St Mary’s, calls him ‘the Great Dean’. ‘Wilson combined in himself several great qualities seldom seen together,’ writes Cope. ‘He saw clearly both the near and the distant view; he was a remarkable though critical judge of character; he had a facility for putting his views into excellent and telling words, and he possessed the power of quick and determined action.’.

One of Charles Wilson’s more controversial innovations was a change in the way students were selected and scholarships awarded, moving from a system based on competitive examinations to one based on his personal choice of men of character. The criteria were akin to those required of a Rhodes Scholar, including a ‘fondness for, and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like’. He was looking for young men of courage and integrity, who behaved like gentlemen and could work in a team.  Since Wilson was a passionate supporter of rugby football, critics suggested that he was using the scholarships to lure rugby players so that St Mary’s would win the Hospitals Cup.  Actually, rugby was not incompatible with professional excellence; several top players whom Wilson had personally recruited also became outstanding doctors.

Charles Wilson was a sought-after lecturer and physician. In 1938 he produced for the Home Office an imaginative plan for the organization of London’s hospitals to receive casualties in the event of hostilities, and was knighted for his services the same year.The mark Sir Charles left on the medical profession in general, and St Mary’s Hospital in particular, was long-lasting. In his biography of Lord Moran, as Sir Charles later became, Richard Lovell writes: ‘By the end of the 1930s [Wilson] was presiding over a student body largely of his own choosing, characterised by great esprit-de-corpsand reflecting remarkably wide interests’. In 1940 Sir Charles was appointed as personal physician to the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a position he held until his patient’s death in 1965.

Roger clearly met Wilson’s criteria for admittance to the Medical School, which Cope lists as, ‘high intelligence, outstanding character and considerable skill at games’. It wasn’t just the performance which impressed him. Nine years later, in 1943 Roger’s younger brother Richard wrote to him from Washington where he had just had dinner with President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the White House: ‘Your dear old chief Charles Wilson was there . . .  he too sent his kindest regards and recalled the first time he met you at Bradfield and you walked home with him part of the way.’ They had talked at length during that walk, and the Dean recognised the young man’s potential.

Persuaded by Wilson’s enthusiasm, Roger gave up his classical studies. He passed his First MB in July 1934 and was awarded a scholarship. In October he entered St Mary’s Hospital Medical School and during the next five and a half years of his training he specialised in surgery, completing his core studies and becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons( MRCS) and Licentiate, Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) in January 1940. In August 1940 he was appointed Casualty House Surgeon, just before the beginning of the Blitz.

My mother Doris Clayton Greene, daughter of Wilson’s mentor Harry Clayton Greene, had trained as a nurse at St Mary’s. In September 1940 she was the night nurse in charge of the operating theatre as she and her colleagues awaited casualties from the anticipated bombings. She later told us how kidney dishes, swabs, bottles of disinfectant and other equipment had been neatly laid out in readiness. As the first of the wounded were brought in, Doris was horrified to see that brick dust from the disintegrating buildings had been ground into the wounds and the skin of the victims. It quickly became apparent that swabs and disinfectant were woefully inadequate for the task, and the staff ended up sluicing the patients down with buckets of water to clean the wounds before surgery.

Working beside Doris as they calmly and efficiently treated those caught in the nightly air-raids was the handsome young Casualty Officer, Roger Miles.

Roger and Doris fell in love and stayed in love for fifty years.

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