Obituary: Norman Alan Simmons CBE

HCSA is celebrating the life of one of the titans of the organisation, Norman Alan Simmons CBE, who has sadly passed away.

Norman was one of a generation of doctors who breathed new life into the association in the 1970s and who were instrumental in turning HCSA - then the Regional Hospitals’ Consultants and Specialists Association (RHCSA) - into a vigorous, influential campaigning organisation.

Alongside his brother Stanley, he played a leading role for many years, serving as president in the mid-’70s at a crucial period for industrial relations.

Norman was an engaged and relentlessly inquiring individual who was born in Hackney, London, in 1933, where his parents ran a textile business. He went to Hurstpierpoint College, West Sussex, and later studied medicine at St Mary’s.

Norman embarked on a impressive medical career as a microbiologist, a specialism which was making huge leaps forward in what was still then a relatively uncharted area.
During his time at St Mary’s Alexander Fleming was active in the school, reflecting the relative infancy of what was becoming a rapidly expanding field.

He worked at the Department of Clinical Pathology at Guy’s in 1961 prior to joining fellow St Mary’s alumnus Dr William Brumfitt at Edgware, which became a leading centre of innovation in the field of clinical microbiology.

Norman became part of a close-knit medical community focused on driving forward innovation in clinical microbiology and research on antibiotics in the UK and worldwide.
In 1971 members of this group joined to create the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, of which Norman was a founding member.

He continued to collaborate on studies of UTIs and antibiotics, and developed an active interest in food hygiene. He also became an international authority on infective endocarditis.
In 1972, shortly before becoming president of the RHCSA, he was appointed Head of Department of Clinical Microbiology at Guy’s, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. There, he contributed to developments in our understanding of hospital infection control, in particular MRSA.
He also advised major corporations on food hygiene, and the British government on issues including salmonella in eggs and listeria in soft cheeses.

From 1990-2001 he was a member of the UK Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food and from 1995-2001 sat as a member of the UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. He was appointed CBE in 2000 for his services to food microbiology.
But his other lasting legacy was the reinvigoration of the RHCSA in the 1970s, at a time of great industrial strife.

In 1975 Consultants mounted national industrial action over plans to phase out capacity for private income. The proposals saw Consultants stage a work to rule and then further action where they only undertook emergency duties.
This period saw Norman, as RHCSA President, leading delegations to Whitehall and help organise a huge Westminster Hall rally drawing hundreds of delegates from across the country.
The other defining feature of the 1970s was the bitter wrangling in 1972-3 with the BMA, which the RHCSA had long felt failed to represent the interests of senior doctors not employed by the major teaching hospitals, with leaders chosen by what Norman described in a letter to the British Medical Journal as “an indirect electoral system with the national representatives appointed by all sorts of committees, associations and royal college councils, many of which are considered to be remote by the grass-roots consultant.”

These strong feelings were articulated in an op-ed in the Association journal declaring: “We are ashamed of our system of representation which has allowed small groups of privileged doctors without a mandate from the majority to set themselves up as ‘representatives of the profession’ and lead us to ruin”.
This shortcoming was something which the BMA itself acknowledged via the launch of a review and subsequent reform of its structures.

Norman was one of the leading figures lobbying the government for national bargaining rights for the RHCSA, whose stated membership had by the early 1970s swelled to 4,000 out of 11,000 consultants. The battle ended in the Industrial Court, which acknowledged the validity of the RHCSA’s case but ultimately rejected the bid “on a technicality” - because it was the government, not employers with whom doctors representatives bargained, and therefore the decision was outside its remit. The outcome was labelled by the RHCSA as a “moral victory”.

It was also during this period that affiliation to the Trades Union Congress was secured - a step which, 45 years later, was to be instrumental in HCSA finally gaining national bargaining rights.
In an interview conducted to coincide with the HCSA’s 70th anniversary, Norman recalled attending the TUC Health and Safety committee and offering advice and support to fellow unions.

He was also a keen writer, contributing to publications, producing his own bulletin, and editing and writing much of the fiery RHCSA “newsletter for the senior hospital doctor”, The Consultant, on his office desk typewriter.
The tone of The Consultant was militant, with one editorial stating: “However long it takes, we shall win. We are at the top of our profession and we are determined to be fairly treated. If you simply want to vegetate and remain a member of the frayed trouser brigade, stay out of this Association.”

Norman was delighted to learn that the foresight he and his peers showed in joining the TUC family in the 1970s was instrumental in securing recognition with NHS Employers in 2017.
He continued to engage following his retirement with medical matters of interest, establishing an Infection Forum of retired microbiologists and infectious disease specialists.
His continued love for writing, and his sense of humour, were amply displayed in a letter to the Times in 2007 under the headline “Dirty Doctors”, commenting on the banning of white coats for doctors.
“Sir, All items of clothing worn in hospitals, including trousers, carry bacteria. The health secretary’s decision to banish long-sleeved white coats from hospitals brings to mind work carried out by the Public Health Laboratory Service several years ago. Researchers found that the least spread of bacteria from surgeons occurred if they were naked and lightly oiled.”

Norman died on November 27th 2020, aged 87, following the effects of a stroke.
HCSA salutes his memory and his sterling contribution to the association, and in so many other fields, for the good of humankind and the advancement of the medical profession.