Bertrand Dawson, 1st Viscount Dawson of Penn

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Bertrand Edward Dawson

Bertrand Edward Dawson, 1st Viscount Dawson of Penn, GCVO, KCB, KCMG, PC, FRCP (9 March 1864 – 7 March 1945) was a physician to the British Royal Family and President of the Royal College of Physicians from 1931 to 1937.

Early life and education[edit]

Dawson was born in Croydon, the son of Henry Dawson, of Purley, an architect.[1]

He entered St Paul's School in London in 1877 and University College London in 1879, graduating in 1888 with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree. He graduated from the Royal London Hospital in 1893 with a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree.


After graduation he was registered as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1890 and invested as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (FRCP) in 1903, and worked as a physician for several years.[2] In 1907, Dawson joined the Royal Household as a physician-extraordinary to King Edward VII, an office he held until 1910, when he was promoted to a physician-in-ordinary under King George V until 1914. He was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) in 1911. Following the outbreak of World War I, he was given the rank of colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps in November 1914.[3] He served on the Western Front in France from 1915 to 1919,[4] rising to the rank of major-general[5] (he had served as a Royal Army Medical Corps officer in the Territorial Force for many years), noticing the poor physical fitness of British troops and conducting research into trench fever. He was mentioned in despatches.

He held the office of Physician-in-Ordinary to King George V until 1936 and was appointed Knight of Grace in the Venerable Order of Saint John and Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1916,[6] Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) in the 1918 New Year Honours,[7] and Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1919.[8]

Report on the Future Provision of Medical and Allied Services[edit]

Dawson was commissioned whilst he was Chairman of the Consultative Council on Medical and Allied Services in 1919 by Lord Addison, the first British Minister of Health to produce a report on "schemes requisite for the systematised provision of such forms of medical and allied services as should, in the opinion of the Council, be available for the inhabitants of a given area". An Interim Report on the Future Provision of Medical and Allied Services[9] was produced in 1920, though no further report ever appeared. The report laid down details plans for a network of Primary and Secondary Health Centres, together with architectural drawings of different sorts of centres. The report was very influential in debates about the National Health Service when it was set up in 1948.


In the 1920 New Year Honours, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Dawson of Penn, of Penn, in the County of Buckingham[10] and became an active member of the House of Lords. In April 1926 he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB),[11] and he was appointed to the Privy Council in the 1929 Birthday Honours.[12]

He held the office of President of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1928 to 1930 and President of the Royal College of Physicians from 1931 to 1937.

Death of George V[edit]

On the night of 20 January 1936 as King George V was dying[13] from bronchitis, his death was hastened by Dawson, who gave him lethal injections of cocaine and morphine.

"At about 11 o'clock it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace of thought, communion or prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end and injected (myself) morphia gr. 3/4 and shortly afterwards cocaine gr. 1 into the distended jugular vein [...]"

Dawson said that he acted to preserve the King's dignity, to prevent further strain on the family, and so that the King's death at 11:55 p.m. could be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper rather than "less appropriate ... evening journals".[14][15] To make doubly sure that this would happen Dawson telephoned his wife in London asking her to let The Times know when the announcement was imminent.[16]

When this appeared in The Daily Telegraph a reader wrote in recalling a clerihew in circulation during Dawson's life:

Lord Dawson of Penn/ Killed many men./ That's why we sing/ 'God Save the King'.

Dawson's public stance on euthanasia was expressed later that year when he opposed a move in the Lords to legalise it because it "belongs to the wisdom and conscience of the medical profession and not to the realm of law". In 1986, the contents of Dawson's diary were made public for the first time, in which he clearly acknowledged what he had done—which was described by a medical reviewer in 1994 as an arrogant "convenience killing".[16]

Further career[edit]

In the 1936 Birthday Honours, on 30 October, he was advanced in the peerage as Viscount Dawson of Penn, in the County of Buckingham[17][18] and remained in the Medical Households of King Edward VIII[19] and King George VI, and treated numerous members of the Royal Family and foreign monarchs including Queen Maud of Norway and King Leopold III of Belgium. During the abdication crisis of 1936 Dawson was believed to have attempted to influence the retirement of prime minister Stanley Baldwin on health grounds, thereby to reduce pressure on the king to abdicate. Dawson was undoubtedly indebted to and supportive of Edward but the account of his close colleague William Evans appears to clear him of any unethical manipulation in the matter.

Dawson was physician and friend to both parties in the feud that was then taking place between the King and the Prime Minister. That Dawson, although initially inclined to the view that Baldwin should retire, eventually pronounced on the Prime Minister's health from medical grounds exclusively, and uninfluenced by either political or moral considerations, was confirmed through his immediate acceptance of a young medical colleague's opinion that the Prime Minister's heart was healthy, which made Baldwin's retirement on the grounds of his unfitness from heart trouble no longer tenable, so that any attempt to dethrone the Prime Minister on that assumption must fail.[20]:p221


Lord Dawson of Penn married Minnie Ethel Yarrow, daughter of Sir Alfred Fernandez Yarrow, 1st Baronet, of Homestead, on 18 December 1900. They had three daughters:

Dawson died in March 1945, aged 80. As he had no male heirs, on his death his titles became extinct.


  1. ^ Bertrand Edward Dawson, 1st and last Viscount Dawson of Penn
  2. ^ "Munks Roll Details for Bertrand Edward, Viscount Dawson of Penn Dawson". Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  3. ^ "No. 28992". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 December 1914. p. 10192.[dead link]
  4. ^ "No. 31466". The London Gazette (Supplement). 18 July 1919. p. 9240.
  5. ^ "No. 30546". The London Gazette (Supplement). 26 February 1918. p. 2577.
  6. ^ "No. 29831". The London Gazette. 21 November 1916. p. 11248.
  7. ^ "No. 30451". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 December 1917. p. 84.
  8. ^ "No. 31597". The London Gazette (Supplement). 10 October 1919. p. 12651.
  9. ^ "Interim Report on the Future Provision of Medical and Allied Services 1920 (Lord Dawson of Penn)". Socialist Health Association. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  10. ^ "No. 31712". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1919. p. 1.
  11. ^ "No. 33151". The London Gazette. 16 April 1926. p. 2613.
  12. ^ "No. 33501". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 May 1929. p. 3665.
  13. ^ The Illustrated London News, with a photograph of Dawson [1]
  14. ^ Watson, Francis (1986), "The Death of George V", History Today, 36: 21–30
  15. ^ Ramsay, J. H. R. (28 May 1994), "A king, a doctor, and a convenient death", British Medical Journal, 308 (6941): 1445, doi:10.1136/bmj.308.6941.1445, PMC 2540387, PMID 11644545 (Subscription required)
  16. ^ a b Ramsay, J. H. R. A king, a doctor, and a convenient death at British Medical Journal, May 1994,308:1445
  17. ^ "No. 34296". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 June 1936. p. 3995.
  18. ^ "No. 34337". The London Gazette. 3 November 1936. p. 7023.
  19. ^ "No. 34306". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 July 1936. p. 4668.
  20. ^ Evans W Journey to Harley Street David Rendel, London (1968)
  21. ^


External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir John Bradford
President of the Royal College of Physicians
Succeeded by
Robert Hutchison