John Creagh Ryle 1915-2000
Born 30 August 1915; died 19 December 2000
John Creagh Ryle was born on August 30, 1915, in the early years of the First World War. He was his parents’ first-born son, the sixth generation on his father’s side to bear the name John Ryle.
His father, John Alfred Ryle, was a pioneer of social medicine, a professor first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. His mother, Miriam Scully, was a student of artesanal weaving from South Africa, with roots on her father’s side in Ireland, in Tipperary.
Miriam Scully held strong anti-establishment views. Although she spent all her adult life in Britain, her children were made aware that they were something more than English. And in 1933, when he was eighteen, John Ryle took the name Creagh by deed poll in honour of his Irish ancestors, becoming John Creagh Ryle.
His childhood, though, was an English rural idyll. With his two brothers and two sisters, he spent most of his early years in a farmhouse in a vale in the Sussex Downs. This was a time when the Downs were wild and largely uncultivated, when country life in these parts of southern England still had a pre-industrial air. In later life he would evoke with pleasure the memory of bright-painted horse-drawn wagons at harvest time, the blacksmith’s forge, and the carpenter’s workshop where he and his brother Martin were apprenticed by their father to learn the woodworker’s craft.
All his life he loved to work with his hands, to design and make things, to dig the earth. He loved to sail. And he loved, above all, to walk in the hills. As a boy he discovered, with his father, an unexcavated archaeological site on the Downs above their home. This marked the beginning of a lifelong fascination with antiquity. Love of the mountains was to take him to the high peaks of the Alps; love of the past led him to explore ruins in Wales and Scotland and, later, to study ancient history, the Welsh language, and the Gaelic of his Irish ancestors.
The Second World War
In Sussex too, as a boy, he learned to sail. He and his brother Martin bought a sloop to explore the anchorages of the Solent. And during his student years, reading Greats (that is, Latin and Greek), then Medicine, first at Oxford University and subsequently at Guy’s Hospital, he discovered mountaineering.
He became a leading member of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, and of the Alpine Club, making ascents of the Matterhorn and other Swiss peaks. He was one of an outstanding generation of Alpinists, climbing with the most distinguished of his contemporaries, David Cox, Michael Lowe, Desmond Graham, John Gask and others, several of whom became lifelong friends. These men—some still living, some now departed—are here in spirit with us today.
He completed his medical training in London as a houseman at St Bartholomew’s Hospital—Bart’s, as it was known, then and now. Then, in 1939, the war came. From 1940 to 1943 he was surgeon-lieutenant on a series of minesweepers in the Eastern Mediterranean. In his diary he described one of these vessels as “a dirty little box, cluttered up everywhere, with gear coated in coal dust”. The ship’s complement, he recalled later, included a dog, which he was called on to treat, and a pet chameleon.
The work of mine clearance was tedious and dangerous, involving days and nights clearing the approaches to harbours on the North African coast—Alexandria, Tobruk and Benghazi—often under aerial attack from the Luftwaffe. He earned commendations for his war service, but after the war ended he seldom spoke of it. His thesis for Doctor of Medicine at Oxford, which he wrote in 1944, was based on his experience as a medical officer in combat. The subject was the medical aspects of fear.
In person he struck most people as a fearless person—both physically, as a climber and a combatant, and morally, in his personal and professional life. As a wartime medical officer he had needed to be, in order to deal with the fears of others. There was a price to be paid for this strength of character. Skeptical by temperament and indifferent to social distinction, after the war he became disillusioned with political ideology, leery of worldly power. He could be sardonic about human nature and prone to anger over its failings.