Some people want to become doctors and others, rugby players. There are of course those people who want to become rugby playing doctors. Professor Ralph Kester is one of those people. He is known to many as a world renowned Vascular Surgeon but he might tell you that he is in actual fact, a rugby player. Having both played rugby and volunteered as a rugby medic for most of his life, the Queen of England recently recognized his contribution to rugby by inducting him into the ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ and awarding him the British Empire Medal.
Born and raised in Beaconsfield, Northern Cape, Ralph grew up in a home where rugby was both a passion and a tool to be used against apartheid. His grandfather, Charles, co-founded the Thistle Rugby Club in Kimberley in 1908 and during the ’60s, his father, John, was the president of the then South African Coloured Rugby Football Board. John also became the first president of the anti-apartheid, South African Rugby Union (not to be confused with the current SARU).
Ralph started playing rugby from the age of 8 at the Perseverance Practicing School XV. At the time, his father was both his principal and coach. He then went on to represent Griqualand West Schools under 14 team, the William Pescod High School 1st XV under 17 team and the Thistle Rugby Football Club. Of course, being a teacher and principal, Ralph’s father encouraged a strong culture of education but it might surprise you to know that Ralph was not exactly a top student.
Ralph describes himself as having been a “complete dunce”. Aged 4 when he started primary school, he “came either last in class or second last”. It was only in grade 8 that he had managed to improve to 12th place, an improvement, he says, came about because of his “very patient” mother’s endless after-school lessons. By the time he reached his final grade, he improved to 4th position and when he wrote his final matric exam, he was “was the only one to achieve a First Class pass”. He emphasizes that his dramatic improvement was the result of “hard work”. Perhaps it also had to do with the fact that he had wanted to be a surgeon since he was four, and he realized that he could not fool around anymore.
A ‘First Class’ pass meant that he did not need to apply to study medicine. It gave him automatic entry into the medical faculty at the University of Cape Town and he started studying medicine in 1955, graduating in 1960. He says that in 1961, he chose to do his internship at the McCord’s Hospital in Durban, because it was the only hospital that treated all doctors of colour equally. During his time studying and interning, he never gave up on his first love, rugby.
Generally taking the position of hooker, or no. 7 flank, he had established himself as a gifted player, representing Excelsior RFC (as the team captain), City Suburban RFU, Hotspurs RFC, Natal RFU and in 1961, he played for the anti-apartheid South Africa Rugby Union. However, by 1962, both his medical and rugby career in South Africa came to an end. He had successfully applied for a De Beers Diamond Fields ‘Dr. E. Oliver Ashe Scholarship’, which meant that he had to work in England. And so began his journey to the upper echelons of the medical (and rugby) profession.
Now, when you ask Ralph for his CV, he will give you two CVs. One is for his day job and the other for his passion. Of course, this is really a story about rugby but let’s start with his day job.
Arriving in the UK at the age of 24, he first worked as an Honorary Lecturer in Anatomy at the University Of London’s Guy’s Hospital. In 1963, he did his surgical training as a junior surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and then went on to work as a surgeon at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Hampshire’s Lord Mayor Treloar Hospital, Scotland’s Dundee Royal Infirmary, Maryfield Hospital, Dundee Royal Infirmary, and the Dundee Teaching Hospitals. After 9 years of being a full-time surgeon, the 34 year old Ralph decided to take a break from surgery. Being the son of a teacher, he went on to pursue his other passion, academics.
In 1972, he went to the University of California in San Diego, as a Fulbright Travel Scholar, where he did pure surgical research as a Surgical Research Fellow. In 1974, he was appointed as a Senior Surgical Lecturer and Consultant Surgeon at the University of Leeds’ St. James’s University Hospital and Chapel Allerton Hospital. At the time, St. James was the largest teaching hospital in Europe. In 1980, St James and Seacroft Hospitals appointed him as their Consultant General Surgeon and Senior Surgical Lecturer and in 1993, he was appointed as St James’ very first Consultant Vascular Surgeon.
During this time, he became a ‘double Professor’, first as a Hunterian Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1982) and then as an Honorary Professor in Vascular Surgery at the University of Leeds (1995). He was the in fact, the University of Leeds’ very first Honorary Professor in Vascular Surgery. He also became the Vice President of the Vascular Surgical Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1981 and president elect in 2001.
During his studies and career, he has received 6 scholarships and awards, acquired 8 medical qualifications, written more than 150 journal articles, wrote and contributed to 45 books, been invited to 124 guest lectures, was and is a member of 24 medical societies, and he has on several occasions provided legal advice in areas of medicine. During his time focused on research, he was still often asked to do complex emergency operations. He is, after all, a world renowned expert in organ transplant and quite literally, bringing people back from the dead.
Now, getting back to rugby…
When he arrived in England, one of the first things he did was join Guy’s Hospital RFC, the oldest rugby club in the world. Through the years, he joined different clubs, depending on where his day job took him. His main position was the no.7 flanker, but he also played hooker and no.8. The list of English clubs and regions that he represented include Cambridge RUFC, Clifton RUFC, Winchester RUFC, Panmure RFC, Angus District XV , Perthshire Select XV, Panmure RFC, Roundhay RUFC, Leeds Medical and Dental RUFC, Yorkshire Colts. During his brief stay in the US, he both played for and coached Old Mission Beach Athletic Club’s two rugby teams. His teammates included legendary English players such as the former president of England’s Rugby Federation Union, Dickie Jeeps and Andy Hancock whose international try in 1965 is rated as one the best.
He also coached Panmure RFC and refereed several games as a member of Scottish Midlands Referee Society and Leeds Central Districts Referee Society.
Ralph was also asked to start volunteering as a rugby medical specialist so, from 1976, he was the lead Honorary Surgeon to the largest rugby constituent body in the world, Yorkshire Rugby Football Union. He was also the team doctor to all 10 of its County teams. He was the team doctor for the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union, the Yorkshire County Team, Yorkshire Women’s Rugby and the North of England Division Colts. In addition, he was the Medical Coordinator of Training and Match Attendance for the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union and the Team Doctor for the North of England.
As the Tour Doctor for the Yorkshire Terriers and Yorkshire Colts, he travelled with them to destinations such as Canada, Australia, France, Portugal, New Zealand, Fiji, US, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Namibia and Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong. In 2011, he was the tour doctor for the Terrier’s match in South Africa. One of the highlights of his rugby career was when was asked to organize the medical set-up for the 2011 Rugby World Cup pool games taking place in Yorkshire, England.
Being deeply involved with the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union, he had the positions of its Junior Vice-President, Senior Vice-President and President. He also sat on its Nominations Panel. In recognition of his longstanding service to Yorkshire rugby, he was awarded the President’s Award for being one of the union’s top volunteers.
Ralph’s extensive list of rugby achievements matches that of his very long list of injuries. He confesses that he has lost count of how many times he has been injured and the number of times he had to stitch himself up without any anaesthetic. His more serious list of injuries include a fractured sternum, a compound displaced fracture of his upper jaw and Bell’s Palsy of the face due to exposure to sub-zero freezing temperatures. His most severe and long lasting came when he had to face up against the Scottish and British Lions prop, David Rollo.
Rollo was a 2 meter tall giant of a man and whenever Ralph’s team played him, it was Ralph’s duty as the Flank to tackle and take him down. In every game, he brought Rollo to the ground and in every match, the two men exchanged punches and uncomplimentary words. This continued for 7 years. In their last match playing against each other, Rollo came down heavily on Ralph’s right knee, causing extensive damage. The injury manifested 40 years later, when his knee had to be replaced with metal. Ralph is fond of his new knee and jokingly calls it, ‘Rollo’s metal knee’.
When asked if these injuries made it difficult for him to perform, he does not respond with a yes or no. He just says that regardless of whether he was in pain, he had to soldier on. His patients needed him and he could not let them down.
Despite having retired from medicine at the age of 66, Ralph was not done with rugby. He played his last game of rugby at the age of 70, in a match between the Leeds Doctors and the Leeds Medical School students. He played in the positions of loose and tighthead prop forward and of course, to quote the Professor, his team “won the match handsomely”. He also jokes that his “opposing student props were reduced to gibbering wrecks”.
Now, aged 81, he is still a member of Leeds RUFC, West Park Leeds RUFC and Yorkshire Terriers RUFC. He is also the vice-president of the Leeds Medical and Dentists RUFC and Leeds Medical and Dentists AFC. In 2018, he was named as Yorkshire RFU’s Medical Coordinator and his commitment to British rugby came to fruition when the Queen awarded him the British Empire Medal. As part of this honour, he attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace but unfortunately, royal protocol dictates that he could not talk to the queen about rugby unless she asked him to.
Of course, rugby might have been his first love, but it is not his greatest love. And now time for one last story, but not about rugby…
In 1958, Ilse Meyer is a young nurse working at Somerset Hospital in Cape Town and Ralph is a 4th year, rugby playing medical student. Naturally, he thinks of himself as a gift to women. They have their first encounter when she is playing tennis at the hospital court. Ralph comes strolling in for his shift, sees her, and arrogantly whistles at her. She is not impressed and coldly ignores him. He picks up a ball that lands at his feet, writes his telephone number on it, and throws it back. This time, not only does she ignore him but in crushing blow to his ego, she took her racket and smashed the ball, quite possibly into the ocean across the street. What she does not know is that, on that day, Ralph falls for her. It takes him 2 years to convince her that he is not a jerk and in 1960, they go on their first date. And epic romance ensues from the warm shores of Durban to the cool breeze of London and more than 50 years later, their passionate love affair continues. They are the parents to 2 successful children, 5 wonderful grandchildren and in 2014, they celebrated their Golden Wedding. Of his wife, Ralph says that without her, he would not have made it this far. Through the years, when things became too much, she was a rock that he could rest his weary, giant shoulders on. More importantly, she mildly tolerated more than 50 years of him trudging rugby mud and dirt into their home. It is quite fitting to note that the last time there were together on that dreaded tennis court was when he was on bended knee, looking up at her in awe, and proposing.
These days, the now retired rugby playing medical doctor just enjoys the luxury of being able to keep the lawn and garden tidy, reading with a good malt whisky, learning to cook excellent meals and being able to finally get a full night’s rest. Most importantly, he enjoys spending time with his wife, kids and grandkids. He says that both his kids and grandkids are much better behaved than he was and outperforms him academically.
He is also still close to his siblings, especially to his sisters, Jean and Patricia, whom he had to babysit as a child. Jean is a Professor of Social Work in South Africa, Patricia was a French language teacher in Canada and his brother was a science teacher.
As the oldest Vice-President, he still supports undergraduate medical and dental students’ rugby and soccer clubs and still attends Yorkshire County rugby matches in his capacity as a former President.
What is the purpose of this story? Is it a story about someone who rose above his circumstances and overcame the multiple odds stacked against him? Is it about anything being possible, about how you can achieve your goals through hard work and dedication or about how important it is to be surrounded by positive role models who support you? Yes, Ralph did overcome enormous odds, excelling in a field where persons of colour were generally excluded from, surrounded by positive role models who rebelled against apartheid and supported his dreams, his father; grandfather; mother; wife. Maybe it is just a story about a remarkable man because yes, there is something rather superhuman about Ralph Kester. Perhaps there is no purpose. Maybe it is just a story about rugby and a rugby player with something about being a medical doctor. If it is really about rugby, then some might ask, which is more important: rugby or saving lives? While most would respond, ‘saving lives’, others might say, quite simply, both.
Note: A special thanks to Prof Ralph Kester for taking the time to help us with this story and to his sister, Prof Jean Triegaardt as well as her daughter, Allison.