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Britten’s personal physician dies, furious at syphilis fable

The British Medical Journal (not online) contains an obituary by its former editor, Stephen Lock, of the Aldeburgh physician, poet and painter, Ian Tait, who died last month, aged 86.

ian tait

Dr Tait was a pioneering family doctor who introduced many healthcare innovations in his practice, founded the Aldeburgh poetry festival, campaigned as a devout Quaker against war in all its forms and was both physician and close personal friend to Benjamin Britten. The pair often dined at each other’s houses and strolled the seafront together.

In his last weeks, Dr Tait was, writes Lock, ‘upset’ by the story in Paul Kildea’s recent biography that Britten’s final illness was accelerated by syphilis, discovered during heart surgery. Dr Tait, who had been involved at every stage of the composer’s care said that this was nonsense and urged others to refute the story, which was based on a single, secondhand source.

That refutation has been substantially accomplished by diligent media investigation. Kildea did not apparently consult Dr Tait in his researches, as previous biographers had done. The biographer, we hear, has defended his story in various print protestations. If he does not withdraw it in the next edition, the entire biography becomes suspect.


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  1. David Oldham says:

    I find the last statement from the Lebrecht article, “Britten’s personal physician dies, furious at syphilis fable” completely at odds with his reference to dligent media investigation. He insinuates that because he cannot agree with this single aspect of Paul Kildea’s scholarly biography that we are to dismiss the entire biography as being complete tosh. This is hyperbolae on an extraordinary scale. I have read Mr Kildea’s biography thoroughly and while I have no medical prowess to speak of, I don’t find his assertions regarding the possibility of Britten having contracted syphilis totally without merit. What I definitely don’t have is a medical fraternity throwing up their arms in protest to what may have been a wellmeaning wish by a practitioner to protect the reputation of Benjamin Britten bynot recording his findings during the operation he conducted on Britten.. Moreover, the 600 odd pages that do not relate to the issue of syphilis are a compelling read on the topic of a great musician who single-handedly took British music, albeit kicking and screaming, into the 20th century..

  2. Just like to point out here that it’s actually illegal to falsify medical records. It’s not just a breach of medical ethics, it’s a felony, and you can get up to five years for it. I don’t believe medical personnel are influenced by well-meaning wishes, they have to give their patients the best treatment they can, and if that means acknowledging unpleasant illnesses, that’s the way it is. I can’t believe a leading heart surgeon would have violated medical ethics, and even broken the law by falsifying medical records, no matter how well-meaning he was.

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