Death of Marsden Chaplain who was on Tamoxifen Ethical Committee

David Brown worked 24/7 supporting cancer patients

Many of you who were treated at the Royal Marsden will remember the Chaplain, David Brown, with fondness.  I know I do;  coming out of my Consultant’s with a bleak “I’ve never seen this before” comment on blindness that had crept up overnight, David took me under his wing.

He had been on the ethical committee that approved Tamoxifen;  without blaming the Consultant for his attitude, David said he had been told by other patients they had experienced this, and would look up Tamoxifen side effects in his notes.   A couple of hours later he phoned me, to tell me that the clinical trial notes verified that a small but significant number of patients had reported they had gone blind.  Then told me the good news was that as far as he could see they had regained their sight – but I must have this checked out.  Then helped me to find a French specialist working in London.

After that, I tended to phone David whenever I had a problem connected with cancer;  his knowledge was profound, and he was able to give me much helpful information of a non-medical nature, and ‘translate’ the long words with which I was bombarded.   His advice was always sensible and practical, and helped when I was feeling lost and bewildered.

He was the Senior Chaplain of the team that administered to patients in both the Chelsea and Sutton hospitals – and I would often see him on his way between  sites.  One day he told me he had been ‘head hunted’ by another hospital – but days later said he couldn’t change jobs, as this hospital didn’t have a Waitrose (very good food store) near by!

Because David loved cooking, and often invited my husband and I to dinner, held around a wooden table in his kitchen. One day he lifted up the table-top, and there was his bath.  Some staff accommodation in The Marsden was Victorian, and these baths had been placed in the middle of the kitchen to ‘modernise’ them.

Crockfords (the Directory for Chaplains, etc) gives the bald facts of  David Frederick Brown’s career:  Illinois University BA (1960). Seabury-Western Theological Seminary MDiv (1967). Deaconed and Priested in 1967. Curate Evanston St Mark (USA), 67-68; Curate Camarillo St Columba 68-69 and Priest-in-charge 69-70; Curate San Francisco Holy Innocents and Curate Grace Cathedral  70-75; Honorary Curate Battersea Christ Church and St Stephen (Diocese of Southwark) 78-83; Senior Chaplain Royal Marsden 83-00; retired 2000; permission to officiate in the Diocese of London from 2002.

What David modestly didn’t tell me was that he had done some of his hospital chaplaincy training at MD Anderson – probably the world’s foremost cancer hospital.

Some people might have known David for his dog, Nigel.  Living on the same street, David always admired our dogs (Border Terriers), and eventually we helped him choose Nigel – a typical Border.  Whether this was the right type of dog for a Chaplain was debatable.  David phoned one day to say he feared he had mental problems: “I keep on thinking I have bought meat, but when I go to the fridge it isn’t there”.

Eventually clues pointed to the fact that Nigel had learnt to ‘paw’ open the fridge, and take out bacon, sausages or whatever.  So David strode off to the nearest Mothercare, in his robes, to buy a child-proof lock for the fridge.  He used to take Nigel into the hospital sometimes, as a PAT dog, and I interviewed a patient for ‘Take a Break’ Magazine with an  incredible story.

One day Nigel was trotting at David’s heels, when he took off and barged into the room of a patient who had had her cancer return, and had literally turned her face to the wall and given up on life.  Until she told me, “Nigel gave me a lick, and from that moment I decided to live”.  Until she left the Chelsea site to move to the Marsden building in Sutton, Nigel was often to be found in her room – with the complete agreement of Sister.

Not many people knew that he came from one of the ‘inner circle’ families in the States, who not only knew Presidents but were god-parents to their children.  David never mentioned this, but occasionally he let something slip.  One thing he was very proud of was his decision to become a British citizen, and ever after he would chortle at the ease with which his dual nationality enabled him to by-pass airport immigration queues in both countries.

Sadly his career came to an end when the service which he had worked for tirelessly for over 21 years (he had given temporary help to the Marsden, before being appointed Senior Chaplain in 1983) let him down.  He had been under the ‘care’ of a Consultant at Hammersmith Hospital, and used to go for annual check-ups.  He knew he would have to have an operation one day, but was told at each check-up to wait another year.

One day he phoned me in great distress.  I had never heard David give any comment on his health, but this time he was in a state of shock.  “Ive just been told ‘you have three months to live’, and to go home and do your Will”.  The Consultant had told him that it was too late to do anything – sorry – they should have operated before’.

David’s sister Molly, when told this, said  “get your Axxx over here”.  She found an eminent surgeon, who said he would operate, and give David a 50/50 chance of surviving.  David said,  “we shook hands, and I said that was good enough for me”.  He did survive, but had spent all his life savings, and unfortunately shortly after had to retire from the job he loved because he still wasn’t fully fit.

Lord Cadogan, hearing of his plight, offered David a ‘grace and favour’ flat in Christchurch Street, and David moved in.  He loved this flat;  for the first time for 21 years he had a proper bathroom!

Long after he retired, people were still coming to David for help and advice – and at the end they did what they could to support him.  One young doctor was on his feet for twelve hours in the ICU unit at Chelsea and Westminster, monitoring the array of machines, willing them to keep David alive until his sister reached him from the States.  And Airport officials arranged for her to be met at Heathrow and whisked past the three-hour queues in Immigration.  They all wanted to do what they could.

In his will he left explicit instructions, and if these were not followed he threatened “to come back and haunt you”.  He didn’t want any flowers, but “do want you to have a good drink”.

His funeral will be at Christchurch (where he often took services) on Saturday, 4th September at 1 pm.  Afterwards his sister Molly wants to make sure David’s instructions are followed to the letter and everyone is invited for a ‘good drink’. etc.  Christchurch is just off Royal Hospital Road, at the Cheyne Walk end.

And Molly and friends have decided that instead of flowers, they would like donations in David’s memory to go to a fund to put up a plaque commemorating his work at Christchurch – the church he loved.  Send c/o The Vicar, St Luke’s & Christ Church, St Luke’s Crypt, Sydney Street, London SW3 6NH.

The picture above is of David as a young man.  I asked the Press Office at The Marsden to provide one of David in working garb at the hospital, but Belinda there told me “this is not in our jurisdiction”.  So I used the one above, knowing David would be tickled pink to be remembered as such a handsome youth!

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5 thoughts on “Death of Marsden Chaplain who was on Tamoxifen Ethical Committee

  1. Sue Lepp August 31, 2010 at 9:36 am Reply

    Thank you for posting this – I am so sorry to hear of David’s passing. It was through you Verite that I was able to meet David and visit him in hospital at Northwick Park. I enjoyed both of our conversations very much. David gave me some very valuable advice regarding hospital chaplaincy as I was about to start at the Royal Brompton Hospital as a volunteer on Sundays. He was a special man!

    • Verite Reily Collins August 31, 2010 at 10:36 am Reply

      So glad you met David – as you say, he was very special. What I found extremely useful was the way he managed to provide information, but never made one feel he was a ‘know-it-all’.

  2. Lori M September 5, 2010 at 1:03 am Reply


    David sounds like a brilliant, warm person to have known – you are fortunate to have called him a friend, and it sounds like he helped out a lot of post-breast cancer patients and was a dedicated man.

    Funny story about Nigel as well ~ Lori McQuiston

    • Verite Reily Collins September 5, 2010 at 9:25 pm Reply

      You are right, and I was so lucky to have had David when docs gave me excuses such as “I’ve never seen this before (when Tamoxifen made me blind – but sight usually returns after a few weeks), and “it’s your age”, when my body came out overnight in bloody skin lesions all over. I am not particularly religious, but went to David for informed accurate information – never advice, but facts. If anyone else suffers from frustration over standard of information, you might try the hospital Chaplain as I did!

  3. Paul Ellison July 8, 2012 at 4:19 am Reply

    David was a wonderful man who selflessly put others first throughout his life. Priests are sometimes described as being “in persona Christi” when celebrating the mass. David lived his life “in persona Christi.” We often remarked on how ironic it was that we had swapped cities: with me now living in San Francisco and he in London. We used to see one another once a year when I visited London. Sadly, the last summer I saw him was 2009. When I called in 2010, the voicemail was full and I was unable to reach him. I shall remember him with special fondness always. May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

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