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A forgotten hero

Health & Society
Tim Tonkin

At a time of endemic discrimination, Cecil Belfield Clarke was a black, gay doctor who thrived in mid-century Britain. His civil rights legacy is now being celebrated.

For doctors and other healthcare professionals, ‘Clark’s Rule’ is a well-established aspect of paediatric medicine.

A simple mathematical formula based on body mass, it is still used throughout the world as a means of determining the safe dosage of medication to give to a child patient from the equivalent amount that would be given to an adult.

The fact, however, that this rule is commonly misspelled perhaps gives some indication as to how little-known the trailblazing doctor responsible for it remains.

Dr Cecil Belfield Clarke was a truly remarkable figure in UK medicine during the first half of the 20th century, and a man whose legacy continues to be felt to this day even if it is one that is not immediately recognisable.

Dr Clarke was not only one of this country’s first black doctors, but a passionate civil rights activist at a time when the so-called colour bar, an informal yet pervasive system of racial discrimination, enabled black and minority ethnic people in the UK to be treated as second-class citizens.

Fighting to get equality when it came to black health professionals

Tony Warner

Born in Barbados in 1894, Dr Clarke was a pupil at the island nation’s Combermere School where he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship in natural science which secured him a place to study medicine at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Departing from his home in the summer of 1914, the then 20-year-old student made what was to become an increasingly perilous journey across the Atlantic, landing in England just weeks following the outbreak of the First World War.


After completing his medical training at Cambridge and at University College Hospital, London, Dr Clarke opened his own medical practice in Elephant and Castle, south London, which he subsequently ran for almost 50 years.

Despite his commitments to the patients of his south London community and to supporting the developing medical professions in the West Indies and Ghana, Dr Clarke was also a committed pan-Africanist and a prominent advocate for the UK civil rights movement.

Together with Jamaica-born physician Harold Moody, the two doctors founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931, with Dr Clarke cultivating international links with other black civil rights activists, while also investing much of his personal income as a doctor towards funding the league’s campaigns.

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Dr Clarke’s legacy deserves recognition (credit: Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dr Clarke continued to serve his community as a doctor throughout the Second World War, despite the enormous physical devastation and loss of life wrought on the capital during the Blitz of 1940-41.

Having fought to study and practise medicine as a black man in the 20th century, as well as being a vocal proponent in the movement for racial equality, Dr Clarke was clearly a person of immense courage and fortitude.

This aspect of his character was perhaps further evidenced through his personal life, with Dr Clarke now known to have been a gay man living with his long-term partner Edward Walter, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

Dr Clarke maintained a life-long affection for Cambridge, and in 1952 his former college established the Belfield Clarke prize for outstanding performance in biological natural sciences Tripos examinations.

Memorial effort

It was also in the 1950s that Dr Clarke became one of the first black doctors elected to the council of the BMA where he served as representative for the West Indies, and was appointed a medical adviser and later a senior medical officer to Ghana following the country gaining its independence from the UK in 1957.

Fortunately, efforts to raise awareness and to celebrate Dr Clarke, who died in 1970, have recently taken a step forward following the unveiling last month of a historical London blue plaque at the former site of Dr Clarke’s London practice.

Despite St Catharine’s College continuing to award a prize bearing Dr Clarke’s name, many people still knew little about the man behind the prize.

Following a research project in 2019, Cambridge graduate L’myah Sherae uncovered details about Dr Clarke’s life which helped to draw greater awareness of his legacy.

His contribution to medicine and civil rights is incredibly immense

Tony Warner

Tony Warner is the founder of Black History Walks, an organisation dedicated to promoting and preserving the history of black people in the capital, and the person chiefly responsible for commissioning Dr Clarke’s memorial plaque.

Having already successfully campaigned to get a plaque erected in honour of Dr Moody, Mr Warner says he felt Dr Clarke’s legacy was as important and deserving of recognition.

‘His name is not as well-known as it should be yet his contribution to medicine and civil rights is incredibly immense,’ says Mr Warner.

‘Not just by the example of him being a doctor, but by him fighting to get equality when it came to black health professionals [and the colour bar].

‘He was able to break through that by virtue of him being a black doctor, but also by virtue of him investing his money into campaigns, protests and letter-writing.’

Latifa Patel, RB chair
Dr Latifa Patel

BMA representative body chair Latifa Patel, who was among those who attended last month’s unveiling, says Dr Clarke was a man who should never be forgotten in our society.

‘Throughout our history, many ethnic minorities have made significant contributions, but their achievements have often been overlooked or forgotten due to systemic racism and discrimination,’ says Dr Patel.

‘As a junior doctor with my specialty in paediatrics, the contribution by Dr Clarke in the form of the Clarke’s Rule resonates deeply with me.

‘The medical profession has always been ethnically diverse, and international medical graduates and doctors from ethnic minority backgrounds have been and continue to be the backbone and the bedrock of the NHS.

‘Dr Clarke, a black doctor from Barbados, is today a pillar of our medical story.’