Richard Gordon obituary

Muriel Pavlow with Kenneth More, right, and Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in the House, 1954.
Muriel Pavlow with Kenneth More, right, and Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in the House, 1954. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Gordon Ostlere, who has died aged 95, was a real-life doctor until 1952, when he left medical practice so that his alter ego, Richard Gordon, could pursue what he considered the more congenial occupation of writing. That year Doctor in the House, the first of Gordon’s breezily good-humoured series of stories with a medical setting, appeared, with a film adaptation following two years later.

The movie was a great success, making a star of Dirk Bogarde as Simon Sparrow, the hapless medical student with matinee idol good looks. He is the innocent who falls in with three already established students at St Swithin’s hospital (Kenneth More, Donald Sinden and Donald Houston), devoted to dating, drinking and sport. Authority came in the form of the fearsome chief surgeon, Sir Lancelot Spratt, realised with aplomb by James Robertson Justice. For Doctor at Sea (1955), Justice became the equally irascible captain of a cargo ship, and Bogarde as its medical officer was fortunate enough to have Brigitte Bardot on board as a passenger. Five more Doctor films followed, with Leslie Phillips starring in three of them as Dr Tony Burke.

Playing Simon Sparrow for BBC Radio’s Doctor in the House (1968) was Richard Briers, and the series has since resurfaced on Radio 4 Extra. Gordon’s cheerful refusal to be overawed by the world of healthcare was very much of its time, notably in its crass sexism – but it was also one component of a general postwar melting away of deference.

ITV revamped the format with versions of Doctor in the House (1969-70) and Doctor at Large (1971) starring Barry Evans, and with scriptwriters including Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman and John Cleese. Doctor in Charge (1972-73) and Doctor at Sea (1974) starred Robin Nedwell.

Gordon wrote much else, including a biographical novel, The Private Life of Florence Nightingale (1978), which suggested that the great pioneering nurse was a lesbian. If the aim was to create attention, he certainly succeeded. Some members of the medical and nursing professions were unimpressed, and the contretemps ended in Doctor-esque comedy when a press conference that Gordon had called at St Thomas’ hospital was cancelled by the indignant district nursing officer and the author had to hold it outside on the pavement.

Richard Gordon was a qualified doctor, but left his medical life to become a full-time writer in 1952.
Richard Gordon was a qualified doctor, but left his medical life to become a full-time writer in 1952. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

In The Private Life of Jack the Ripper (1980), he came to the conclusion that the Victorian killer and mutilator of prostitutes was not only a doctor, because of the surgical skill he displayed, but also an anaesthetist – as he himself had been at the start of his career. His reasoning was that because no one had heard any of the victims screaming, the Ripper must have used chloroform, which would require specific medical knowledge.

Gordon loved to let his mind roam all around the discipline he had started from: in the 1990s, his Alarming History of Medicine contained “amusing anecdotes from Hippocrates to heart transplants”, and other Alarming Histories covered famous and difficult patients, and sex. He also edited The Literary Companion to Medicine (1993).

Born in London, Gordon studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and St Bartholomew’s hospital medical school in London. He was an anaesthetist at St Bartholomew’s and at the Nuffield department of anaesthetics in Oxford, and with Roger Bryce-Smith wrote a textbook on the subject.

After a stint as assistant editor of the British Medical Journal, he took a job as a ship’s doctor on a freighter bound for Australia. In the Indian Ocean he realised that the crew were almost entirely healthy and likely to remain so, and that the only things he could do were drink gin and whisky with the ship’s engineer or use the purser’s typewriter to start writing about his medical experiences. The latter seemed to promise a longer life, so he arranged all the anecdotes he could remember around Simon Sparrow, and Doctor in the House and its successors sold in their millions.

The poster for the 1954 film Doctor in the House.
The poster for the 1954 film Doctor in the House. Photograph: Rex

In 1951 he married Mary Patten, a fellow anaesthetist whom he had met in Oxford. She supported him during his change of career, and they moved to Bromley, in south-east London.

Though he certainly wrote for popular consumption, Gordon did not seek publicity for himself. However, in 1974 he unknowingly received the ultimate accolade of the world of entertainment – being lured into a situation where he could be invited to appear on This Is Your Life, hosted at the time by Eamonn Andrews. Guests had been secretly assembled for the live show, but when Andrews approached him with his big red book to tell him, “This is your life”, Gordon did not, as intended, graciously go to meet his assembled family and friends in front of the cameras.

Instead, he snapped, “Oh balls!” and stalked off. Screens suddenly went blank and another programme was substituted. The only other person to have jibbed up till then was the footballer Danny Blanchflower. Unlike him, Gordon relented after persuasion from his wife, returning a few minutes later to record a programme that was shown later. His initial reluctance he put down to being “pathologically shy”.

He is survived by Mary and their two sons and two daughters.

• Richard Gordon (Gordon Stanley Ostlere), doctor and writer, born 15 September 1921; died 11 August 2017

• Dennis Barker died in 2015