Robin Cavendish

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Robin Cavendish
Robin Francis Cavendish

(1930-03-12)12 March 1930
Died8 August 1994(1994-08-08) (aged 64)
OccupationAdvocate for disabled people
Developer of medical aids for paralysed people
Diana Blacker (m. 1957–1994)
ChildrenJonathan Cavendish

Robin Francis Cavendish, MBE (12 March 1930 – 8 August 1994), was a British advocate for disabled people, medical aid developer, and one of the longest-lived responauts[a] in Britain. Born in Middleton, Derbyshire, Cavendish was affected by polio at the age of 28. Despite being initially given only three months to live, Cavendish, paralysed from the neck down and able to breathe only with the use of a mechanical ventilator, became a tireless advocate for disabled people, instrumental in organising the first records of the number of responauts in Britain and helping to develop numerous devices to provide independence to paralysed people.

Early life and career[edit]

Robin Francis Cavendish was born 12 March 1930 in Middleton, Derbyshire, England. He attended Winchester College. He attended Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was commissioned into the 60th Rifles, of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, spending seven years in the Army, eventually attaining the rank of Captain. He left the Army to join Thompson Smithett in starting up a tea-broking business in Kenya. In 1957, he married Diana Blacker and returned to Kenya. They had one son,[3][1] Jonathan Cavendish.[4]

Polio diagnosis and subsequent career[edit]

In December 1958, while in Kenya, Cavendish became ill with polio. Because he was paralyzed from the neck down, a Nairobi doctor put him on a mechanical respirator that Cavendish needed to breathe, making him a "responaut". Cavendish flew back to England.[1][5] He was initially given only three months, and then one year, to live.[1] According to Jonathan Cavendish, his father's first thought after being struck down by polio was to "turn off the machine", reasoning that Diana was only 25, and telling her, "You can start again." But, as Jonathan states, "she wasn't having any of it."[3] Against the advice of his doctors, he left the hospital after a year.[1]

For the remainder of his life, Cavendish and his wife worked not only to improve the quality of his life, but the lives of other paralysed people, travelling the world to inspire others as campaigners for disabled people. Cavendish would often serve as the expert who explained his condition to consultants and nurses. In the 1960s he tracked down and listed the circumstances of all the responauts in Britain, compiling the first record of how many people were confined to iron lungs.[1]

In 1962, Cavendish and his friend Teddy Hall, the Oxford University professor, developed a wheelchair with a built-in respirator that freed Cavendish from confinement to his bed, which became the model for future devices of its type,[1] with Cavendish eventually using a total of 10 different chairs.[5] Determined that mobility should be available to other polio survivors, Cavendish raised money from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust for the first dozen chairs, and eventually persuaded the then British Department of Health to fund a series of chairs, which were manufactured by Teddy Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering. After testing them on himself, Cavendish helped to market pieces of equipment that improve the quality of life of disabled people. Most notable among these was the Possum, which Cavendish developed with scientists at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and which allowed users to use the telephone, turn on a television or adjust a home's central heating with only a left-or-right movement of their head.[1] Others included a lightweight ventilator that ran on batteries, and a modified aircraft seat fitted with electronic aids. Littlemore received government funding to make another forty chair-and-ventilator sets.[5]

Moved by the plight of families who could never go on holiday together, Cavendish and others, in particular polio specialist Dr. G.T. Spencer, the consultant in charge of the Lane-Fox Unit at St Thomas's Hospital in London, co-founded the charity Refresh in 1970 to raise the money toward the construction of Netley Waterside House, a holiday complex overlooking Southampton Water on the South Coast whose facilities provided for the care of severely disabled responauts as they and their families enjoyed the attractive surroundings. The facility opened in 1977.[1][3]

Cavendish was made an MBE in 1974.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Cavendish was an atheist.[1]

Among his pastimes was reading newspapers. Cavendish and Diana refused to accept Cavendish's condition as a major restriction, travelling widely until a short time before his death. They often drove from Oxford to London in their specially adapted van, returning home late at night. They also travelled abroad to visit places such as the battlefields of northern France, and they enjoyed receiving visiting friends in their home. According to Alice and Tim Renton of The Independent, "Young people found him an irresistible ear to pour confidences into and his stimulating and down-to-earth attitude to problems helped many. His contemporaries would drive across country to ask his advice and enjoy his company. It was as if his sedentary life gave him a broader viewpoint and a sharper vision than the rest of us, and his capacity for laughing at, as well as with, his friends was healthily deflating."[1]

Cavendish was described by the Rentons as "naturally unsentimental" whose love for Diana, Jonathan and daughter-in-law, Leslie Ann Rogers was both "well-concealed and totally evident". According to the Rentons, Cavendish "questioned mercilessly and passed on gossip as happily as he received it, but somehow the malice disappeared as it went through him. He had a natural graciousness: his lack of evident resentment at his own condition made helping him a positive pleasure."[1]

Death and legacy[edit]

Cavendish died on 8 August 1994 at Drayton St Leonard, Oxfordshire, England at the age of 64, becoming a medical phenomenon as one of the longest-living polio survivors in Great Britain. In their obituary of him, the Rentons stated, "To know Robin Cavendish was to know the personification of courage. Many people achieve moments of great courage, few are called on to show it continuously for 36 years."[1]

On 27 November 1995, the Robin Cavendish Memorial Fund was created, with Diana, Jonathan and Leslie Cavendish among its trustees. Its purpose was to provide grants to individuals and organisations for the purpose of advancing the health and saving the lives of people with disabilities. In 2014, it was merged with the charity that Robin and Diana Cavendish had previously founded, Refresh, into the Cavendish Spencer Trust, which provides holiday and respite breaks for people with severe disability due to neurological or neuromuscular disorders. The Trust is named for Cavendish and his close friend Geoffrey Spencer, who aided Cavendish in his advocacy for disabled people.[6][7]

In November 2017 Cavendish and Diana were awarded the Patient Innovation Lifetime Achievement Award for their work in developing innovations and advocating for people with disabilities. The award was announced by Nobel Laureate Sir Richard J. Roberts, a member of the Advisory Board of Patient Innovation and of the Jury of the Awards, addressed the audience in the Awards Ceremony at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.[8]

In media[edit]

Cavendish's son, Jonathan Cavendish, a film producer who runs the production company The Imaginarium Studios with actor/director Andy Serkis, commissioned writer William Nicholson to write a screenplay on his father's life and work. The film, Breathe, is directed by Serkis, and opened in October 2017. In the film, Cavendish is portrayed by Andrew Garfield.[3][9][10]


  1. ^ A person permanently dependent upon a mechanical ventilator to maintain breathing.[1][2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Renton, Alice; Renton, Tim (10 August 1994). "Obituary: Robin Cavendish". The Independent.
  2. ^ "responaut". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Bamigboye, Baz (16 March 2017). "Claire and Andrew bring to life a remarkable love story: Actress tells BAZ BAMIGBOYE about her role in new film Breathe". Daily Mail.
  4. ^ Dex, Robert (17 May 2016). "Rings star Andy Serkis on filming another swashbuckling band of adventurers". London Evening Standard.
  5. ^ a b c Oaksey, John (17 August 2001). "Obituaries: Professor E T 'Teddy' Hall". The Daily Telegraph.
  6. ^ "The Robin Cavendish Memorial Fund". Open Charities. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  7. ^ "About Us". The Cavendish Spencer Trust. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  8. ^ "Newsletter #12: 3rd Patient Innovation Awards at the conference 'Opening up to an era of Social Innovation'". Patient Innovation. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  9. ^ Kilday, Gregg (10 September 2016). "Toronto: Andrew Garfield Starrer 'Breathe' Goes to Bleecker Street, Participant". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  10. ^ Sartin, Hank (2017). "Movie producer Jonathan Cavendish tells the story of his parents in new movie 'Breathe'". Rotary International. Retrieved August 14, 2018.

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