FOR a man who has achieved so much, Lord Turnberg is immensely modest. Add to that a dash of humility, humour and candour, and you understand why he has been so successful.
A peer for nearly 20 years, he was born Leslie Turnberg and raised in a terraced house in Salford, the only child of Dora (Dolly), who was of Polish parentage, and Romanian-born Hymie.
Lord Turnberg enjoyed a traditional Jewish upbringing and attended Stand Grammar School in the north Manchester suburb of Whitefield.
He went on to read medicine at the University of Manchester, having been encouraged to do so by a friend.
He recalled: “A friend of mine said he was going to apply to do medicine, so I thought if he can do it then so can I!
“I did like science, but there were no doctors in the family, nor had anyone been to university.
“I got into Manchester University, but, ironically, my friend who applied with me did not.”
After completing his studies, which took five years, Lord Turnberg completed his house posts at various north Manchester hospitals before moving on to the Manchester Royal Infirmary.
At that time, there were no Jews on staff at MRI or any other teaching hospitals in the area.
But that changed when Lord Turnberg was appointed as a junior doctor.
He also trained at London’s Whittington and University College hospitals and, after developing a specialist interest in gastroenterology, began lecturing in the subject at the capital’s Royal Free Hospital and also spent a year on a research fellowship in Dallas.
And it was in the Texan city that he married Edna (nee Barme), who was born in then-Palestine and raised in Germany and the UK, in a civil ceremony.
They had their Jewish ceremony at Manchester’s Prestwich Hebrew Congregation a year later, in 1968.
But why did Lord Turnberg decide to specialise in gastroenterology, the branch of medicine which focuses on the digestive system and its disorders?
“At the time, neurology interested me, but you could not actually do much for the patients,” he explained.
“Cardiology was an option, but it was before the days of heart bypasses and coronary stents.
“Gastroenterology, at the time, was an open book — it was just before fibre optic endoscopes were implemented, which meant you could look inside the stomach.
“It was a speciality which was beginning to open up.”
He became consultant gastroenterologist at Hope Hospital, Salford (today known as Salford Royal Hospital) and, in 1973, was appointed professor of medicine at the same hospital, where he helped research into the understanding of the absorption of electrolytes in the small bowel, gastric secretions and in other areas of gastroenterology.
The 85-year-old has seen many changes during his long-service in medicine, especially to the NHS, which was central to both the Conservatives and Labour General Election manifestos.
Lord Turnberg said: “The NHS is undoubtedly better these days as it does so much more for patients — but that is part of the problem.
“The more we learn, the more we find new treatments which cost an awful lot of money.
“The amount of money going in cannot seem to catch up with the demand for treatments.
“While the media has said that the NHS is full of failure, you have to look at the numerous patients who are treated well.
“Hope, now Salford Royal, led the field — and still does — in the way it organises its health service.
“It runs its hospital service together with its community services, which has not happened in much of the rest of the country.
“There is no integrated service, which is what we need.
“Cuts in social care have not helped in that patients come into hospital too soon and stay too long when they should be at home or in a nursing or old peoples’ home. That end of the service is causing the most difficulty for the NHS.”
Lord Turnberg has held numerous positions over the course of his career, including Medical Protection Society president, UK Forum for Genetics chairman and chairman of the Board for the Public Health Laboratory Service.
But perhaps most prestigious was in 1992, when he became president of the Royal College of Physicians.
“The role of Dean of University of Manchester medical school had moved to Hope, so because I was a senior professor, I took on the role,” Lord Turnberg recalled.
“It was maybe because of that role that my name was put forward.”
His time as president saw the college form the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Lord Turnberg and his wife initially split their time between their homes in Cheshire and London.
They moved to the capital permanently in 2006 after their mothers, who both lived in Manchester, died.
Another interesting position arrived in 2004 when the government established a national centre for best practice in animal testing.
Named The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, its board was chaired by Lord Turnberg.
The subject of vivisection has long been controversial, something to which he is sympathetic.
Lord Turnberg explained: “We did use animals, predominately rats, in medical research.
“The government idea was a good thing and I did wonder why we could not do away with animal research altogether.
“It is, however, essential for all sorts of reasons, such as testing drugs before they are used on humans and understanding the nature of a disease.
“The aim was to refine it so we did not use so many animals and we persuaded the pharmaceutical industry to reduce the number, as well as making it more difficult for them to use primates.
“We also proposed ways in which research can be done with fewer animals, or none at all.”
Twelve years ago, Lord and Lady Turnberg’s lives were shattered when their son, Daniel, was killed in a plane crash over Malawi, Africa, aged just 37.
He had followed his father’s career footsteps and was a specialist in renal medicine, lecturing at the Royal Free Hospital.
Recalling that dreadful day, Lord Turnberg said: “Edna and I had just arrived home from a weekend away when there was a knock on the door. It was the police.
“Daniel’s death is a blow from which we have not recovered — he is a constant presence in my mind.
“I could not eat for weeks after it happened because I was completely lost.
“Rarely a day goes by when I do not get tears in my eyes thinking about him — he was such a lovely man.
“It did not change my faith very much, but, for Edna, it confirmed her view that religion has a lot to answer for.”
Lord and Lady Turnberg are also parents to Helen, who lives in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh.
Helen, who is modern Orthodox, hesitated over her religious beliefs following the tragedy but, in the end, “she reaffirmed it,” Lord Turnberg said.
The Turnbergs, together with the Academy of Medical Sciences, established the Daniel Turnberg Memorial Fellowships a year after his death.
It encourages researchers from the UK, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, to experience an alternative research environment, to learn new techniques and develop ideas for future collaborations.
“We needed to commemorate Daniel in some way and the fellowships combines his interest in medical research and Israel,” the grandfather-of-four continued.
“A lot of people contributed funds because they were so touched by the idea. We fund around 25 to 30 researchers per year.
“In Cyprus, earlier this month, we held a meeting for 90 fellows, where Israelis and Arabs presented their research. They all stayed in the same hotel and mixed together, which was a real heartwarming thing to see.”
Elevated to the House of Lords in 2000, Lord Turnberg, who received a knighthood in 1994 for services to medicine, is a convenor of the All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group.
“I was originally supposed to mostly discuss medical matters in the Lords, but I have spent much of my time defending Israel,” he said.
“Israel was the subject of much criticism, so a few of us gathered together and set up a pro-Israel steering group.
“We trained non-Jewish colleagues and, today, whenever an Israel debate comes up, we can call on 90 or so of them to come forward with a response.
“I like the idea that we engaged with non-Jews in the Lords who can then respond on our behalf.”
A number of MPs and peers deserted Labour over its antisemitism crisis, but Lord Turnberg waited until July to quit, alongside fellow Jewish peer Lord Triesman and Ara Darzi, an ethnic Armenian.
“The reason I held on for so long was I thought we had a chance of being able to divert the course of Labour’s policies one way or another, but I’d had enough,” he said.
Lord Turnberg regularly lectures on issues pertaining to Israel and, in 2017, wrote Beyond the Balfour Declaration: The 100-Year Quest for Israeli–Palestinian Peace, having penned his autobiography, Forks in the Road: A Life In and Out of the NHS, two years earlier.
Another book, Poisoned Chalice: British Mandate Palestine 1919-1939, is due out in the spring, and he is also working on another tome — but on a subject far removed from the above.
“It is about fitness and exercise for the over-70s,” Lord Turnberg said.
“It is something I am very keen on and I think it is an important for the elderly to exercise, even more than it is for the young.”
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