Professor Anthony Bryceson, expert in tropical diseases who was kidnapped by guerrillas in Laos – obituary

He and his colleagues eventually got on well with their captors, and were even given whisky on the Queen’s birthday

Anthony Bryceson
Anthony Bryceson

Professor Anthony Bryceson, who has died aged 88, survived 33 days of captivity by communist Pathet Lao guerrillas in the 1960s; he later built an international reputation as a world expert in such tropical diseases as leishmaniasis, leprosy, trypanosomiasis, onchocerciasis and filariasis.

In May 1962 the 27-year old Bryceson and a colleague, Dr Colin Prentice, were working as part of a rural medical team in Laos under the Colombo Plan, a Commonwealth programme under which foreign aid and technical assistance was provided to developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

On May 26, while dispensing medicines from the back of a Land Rover in the southern Saravane province bordering Vietnam, the two British doctors and a Lao male nurse were captured, tied up, threatened with Sten guns and taken prisoner by Pathet Lao guerrillas, who were then involved in a civil war against the US-backed royal regime in Vientiane.

Roped together and marched into the forest, they were first accused of being American spies. When they eventually managed to convince their captors that they were doctors engaged in humanitarian work, they were told they had no right to work in “liberated” areas without permits signed by the organisation’s political leaders. “Unless you can get a letter from Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Souphanouvong for your release,” their captor Sithone Kommandan, the local Pathet Lao leader, told them, “I will keep you indefinitely, even for 10 or 20 years.”

Prentice was allowed to write to his wife who alerted British embassy staff, and five days after the men’s capture, Mervyn Brown, first secretary at the embassy, and Major CE Leaphard, assistant military attaché, set off into the jungle bearing a safe conduct and instructions for the men’s release signed by the Pathet Lao leader Prince Souphanouvong. When they arrived, however, they too were taken prisoner, their captors declaring the documents to be forgeries.

The guerrillas apparently felt that by holding the men hostage they would increase pressure from abroad on the Laotian government to agree to form a coalition government including the Pathet Lao. It seems the tactic worked, as in June a new coalition was formed with Prince Souphanouvong as the new vice premier. After a five-day march the four British captives were released on June 29 looking thin but otherwise in “very good health”.

Bryceson and Prentice reported that after some tense moments, when they thought they might be shot, they had been well treated and well fed by local standards, and even allowed “a little whisky” on the Queen’s birthday. They had, however, been kept under constant guard and had been worried about falling sick as their captors had seized their stock of medicines.

To while away the time they had fashioned a pack of cards from clippings from a medical magazine and made a chess set. The four Britons had also astounded their captors and local villagers by playing cricket with a bamboo bat and a lump of charcoal for a ball. “After watching for a bit,” reported Mervyn Brown, “they began to join in, imitating what we did.”

Anthony David Malcolm Bryceson was born on November 16 1934 in a military cantonment in Kohat in the North-West Frontier Province of British India, where his father Donald was serving as a senior officer in the Indian army; his mother, Muriel, was a nurse.

Bryceson combined modesty, courtesy and supreme skills as a clinician

From Winchester he read natural sciences at Christ’s College, Cambridge, before spending three years at Westminster Hospital Medical School, qualifying as a doctor in 1959. In 1961, before setting off for Laos, he took the Professional Diploma in Tropical Medicine & Hygiene at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

His service in Laos (1961-63), an alternative to military service, fired a lifelong interest in tropical medicine. A year after his return to the UK in 1964, as registrar at the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases (HTD), he seized the opportunity to become assistant professor at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, over the next two years, he developed a research interest in leishmaniasis, a potentially deadly parasitic disease spread by sandflies, in which he became a leading expert.

He had been recruited by Professor Eldryd Parry, a charismatic Welsh doctor who was playing a key role in the development of medical services in Africa, and in 1969 Parry persuaded Bryceson to help him establish a new medical school at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. There he and colleagues undertook ground-breaking research on a huge range of tropical diseases.

In 1974 Bryceson was appointed consultant physician at the HTD and senior lecturer at the LSHTM, where he remained until his retirement and was appointed professor in 1996.

Bryceson’s modesty, courtesy and supreme skills as a clinician, together with his patience and willingness to give freely of his time, endeared him to generations of students and inspired affection and great respect among colleagues. As well as his reputation as a physician, he established an outstanding reputation as a dermatologist at St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin.

Bryceson published many papers, and several books. He was awarded the Chalmers Medal and the Donald Mackay Medal of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, of which he was a member, serving as honorary secretary from 1984 to 1989. Away from work he was a keen birdwatcher, enjoyed classical music, rambling and photography, and boasted a large collection of decorated gourds bought on his travels.

After his retirement he moved to Cairns in Queensland, Australia, to spend more time with his family, but remained actively involved in medicine as an adviser to the American company Shoreland Travax, an online travel medical advice service.

In 1969 he married Ulla Skalts, a Danish designer and architect, who survives him with their son and daughter.

Professor Anthony Bryceson, born November 16 1934, died July 19 2023