Somervell, Theodore Howard (1890-1975), medical missionary and mountaineer

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Somervell, Theodore Howard (1890-1975), medical missionary and mountaineer

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16 April 1890 - 23 January 1975


Dr Howard Somervell was a member of the 1922 and 1924 British Mount Everest Expeditions.

Howard Somervell was born on 16 April 1890, the eldest of three children and elder son of William Henry Somervell, of Brantfield, Kendal, and his wife, Florence Howard. His father worked for Somervell Brothers of Kendal, later more widely known as K Shoes. He was educated at Rugby School (1904–9) but was unhappy there. When he was eighteen he became a member of the Keswick-based Fell and Rock Climbing Club and thus started a lifetime's devotion to the mountains of the English Lake District.

Somervell went to Caius College, Cambridge, where he obtained first classes in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos (1911 and 1913). He then served with the British Expeditionary Force in France (1915–18) as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was mentioned in dispatches. After the war he graduated from London's University College Hospital (MB, BCh, 1921) and became FRCS in 1920.

Somervell's Everest ambitions were stimulated in 1921 during mountaineering trips in Britain and Europe. He realised that the Himalayan region called for constant movement above 20,000 ft. Everest was to be his physical test in 1922 and 1924, but his colleagues commented too on his mental endurance.

Somervell wrote of Mallory that his outlook on life was "lofty and choice, human and loving and in a measure divine".

In 1924 Somervell was in danger of choking to death, E. F. Norton wrote: 'Somervell very nearly choked, and was handicapped for three days. Only saved by coughing up the obstructing matter with a lot of blood. That he achieved what he did in this condition was a remarkable performance'.

After the 1922 Everest expedition he set out to see India. He saw that it was ill-equipped medically and poorly provided for in the skills which he possessed. When he visited the main hospital of the south Travancore medical mission and its group of outstations centred on Neyyoor, he found only one qualified surgeon, Stephen Pugh, struggling with a queue of waiting patients which would take ten days to reduce. Somervell offered to perform those overdue operations. He returned to London and told his friends in London hospitals that he had decided to devote his life to India after another attempt on Everest. He joined the 1924 expedition on which Mallory and Irvine died.

From 1924 to 1949 Somervell worked for the south Travancore medical mission which, with its branch hospitals, could claim to be the largest of its kind in the world. He attracted young surgeons to work with him, especially in the surgery of the stomach. Somervell also pioneered the modern treatment of leprosy believing that it could be cured. His home for leprosy patients had four big dormitories for eighty patients, and there was also a leprosy settlement for permanent residents. By 1936 several scores of patients had been sent home cured and free from all symptoms of the disease.

In 1938 he was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind gold medal, and was appointed OBE in 1953.

He accepted the post of associate professor of surgery at the Vellore Christian Medical College (1949–61), then at a crucial stage of its development as a teaching hospital. It was a fitting climax to his forty years' service in India.

He died on 23 January 1975. Sir Francis Younghusband described him as 'a man of science, a man of art, a man of warm humanity and of strong religious feeling'.


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Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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