Benjamin Lee obituary

Other lives: Dedicated doctor and accomplished musician

Benjamin Lee, my father, who has died aged 97, was a doctor and a fine amateur cellist.

Born in north London, he was one of four children of a Polish mother, Polly Orless, and a Lithuanian father, Symon Lee, an unsuccessful salesman who as a child had been part of that late 19th-century wave of Jewish immigrants to whom Britain opened its doors. Benjamin grew up in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, where he learned the cello and won a scholarship to the grammar school. (After Christian prayers, the headteacher would say: “Let in the Jews.”)

He had a very troubled childhood, which he spoke of only reluctantly. His father died early while Benjamin was a medical student at Guy’s, and he cut himself off from the rest of his family. In June 1944 he married Josephine Anderson, whom he had met at a wartime Prom concert.

On graduating, he was posted as a Royal Navy medical officer to Alexandria and Haifa. Following the nuclear bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945, he took off his uniform on board ship in protest.

After the second world war he put up his doctor’s plate in Hampshire. My sister, Bridget, was born in 1945; he saved her life, as a baby with pneumonia, by injecting her with penicillin, then rarely used. I was born in 1948, coinciding with the birth of the NHS, for which he worked for the next 30 years. He moved in 1952 to a practice in Soho, central London. A single-handed GP, he was dedicated, domineering, loved and obeyed by his patients, and was often out on night-calls; Josephine working as his receptionist.

Outside work he would play Bach on his Testore cello. At weekends, Josephine organised quartets with professional musicians. As a father he was despotic, generous, critical, humorous and interested in our achievements. He wrote three funny children’s books in the 1970s, Paganini Strikes Again, The Man in Fifteen and The Frog Report.

Increasingly disillusioned by the bureaucracy of the NHS, he moved on in the mid-70s to work for the Canadian Pacific shipping company, hospitals in Africa and the Home Office prison inspectorate. He resigned from the last of these and in 1983 published exposés in the Lancet and the BMJ of the over-sedating of prisoners.

He and Josephine moved several times, to Cambridge, Winchcombe, Salisbury and finally Dorchester, where she died in 2003. Benjamin spent the next 15 years alone, walking in the country, learning poetry, rereading Proust and Dante, George Eliot, Hardy, Austen and Yeats, and listening to music, becoming frailer, moderately pleased with visits from his daughters and news of Bridget’s children and grandchildren, friendless by choice, but charming all who came his way.

In the days before his death, he was rereading Persuasion, learning Gray’s Elegy, talking about Janáček and the lack of veal escalopes in Dorchester, and listening to the Met broadcast of Bluebeard’s Castle.

He is survived by Bridget and me, his three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.


Hermione Lee

The GuardianTramp

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