Obituary: Jim Milledge

Posted by Niall Grimes on 21/03/2022
photo: Simon Currin

Jim Milledge, often referred to as 'the father of mountain medicine' passed away on 9 February this year, aged 91. The BMC's honorary medical advisor, David Hillebrandt, looks back over his career and contribution to the mountain world.

Jim went to school in North Wales where he was first introduced to the hills. A family asked the headmaster if he knew of a reliable but not academically bright lad who would like to spend time learning about their raspberry jam business and who would reliably run their factory if they were away. Not recognising Jim’s potential, that was masked by his dyslexia, Jim undertook work experience with them and this made him determined never to work in such an environment.  This was a sensible decision since the medical world would have been denied a brilliant enquiring mind that has produced consistent respected research work, often on High Altitude medicine. His work is appreciated across the world and he represented the BMC on the UIAA medcom, being president at one stage.

Not only was Jim an accomplished researcher but he was also a very competent climber and mountaineer in his own right. This stood him in good stead during his time overwintering at 5800m on the Silver Hut expedition in 1960 organised by Sir Edmund Hillary and Griff Pugh. He went on to reach 7000m on Makalu and then had to evacuate Hillary who had become ill. He was an active member of the Alpine Club and Climbers Club and joined other expeditions to Kongur and Everest in 1981 and Janoli in 1991 together with trips to other Alpine areas throughout the world.

Jim spent his early working life with his wife Betty, initially with the RAF in Hong Kong (Milledge Buttress is still in the local rock climbing guide) and then at the Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore and its location and his contacts enabled him to climb Kinabalu and then to trek in Nepal. Like Jim himself their two children were brought up in the outdoors and their interest continues to this day. Betty died suddenly in 1991 and in 1993 Jim married Betty’s friend Pat who has cared for him during his final illness. 
Jim used to joke that his life was a perpetual mountain holiday but he is equally respected in medical circles. He became medical director at Northwick Park Hospital and was described by one junior member of staff as “the best medical director he has ever come across he was always building bridges and reconciling groups in conflict”.

As tributes to Jim flow in one is struck by the number of young researchers, medical students, doctors and expedition mountaineers who are indebted to him for the time he gave them to encourage, guide and mentor them in their ventures. 

In his final years Jim’s short-term memory failed causing him (and, at times, those close to him) some frustrations. He was still able to describe potential routes in remote valleys in Nepal and loved doing this in the bar at Plas y Brenin on a mountain medicine course or at the Alpine Club. Being aware of his own failing intellect he took steps to make his final wishes known and arranged power of attorney. Sadly, at the end, his NHS and our care system failed to treat him with the dignity of a peaceful death as befits such a gentleman.

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I will never forget the help and encouragement that Jim gave us to realise our plan to organise the first Everest Marathon. Such encouragement from someone with the expertise he had, was fundamental in creating the confidence in us to proceed. I will never forget his enthusiasm and hoe that translated into to participation of the team that went from Northwick Park to help us realise our dream.
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