Tragic death of a brave doctor

TWO years ago, back in November 2008, the city witnessed the launch of the revised and enlarged text of Gardiner Mitchell's local classic Three Cheers for the Derrys.

Thursday, 18th November 2010, 11:06 am

It basically told the story of the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Derry Volunteers) in the Great War, through the eyes of three members of that fearless battalion, who had survived that bloody conflict and proceeded to live into longevity.

One courageous survivor of the battalion, however, did not live to see old age. He died a tragic death in a bathing tragedy at Castlerock on Sunday, July 14, 1935. His name was Dr Samuel Ernest Picken, of Oakley, Bristo Park, Belfast, and he had been residing with his wife at a hotel, at which he had arrived two days previously.

Dr Picken went in for a bathe with his wife and a friend, Mr John McQuiston, of Glasgow, at about one o'clock. Mrs Picken left the water first, and shortly afterwards Mr McQuiston made for the shore too, calling upon Dr Picken to follow him.

When Mr McQuiston reached the shore he looked round for his friend, but could see no sign of him. He had evidently disappeared without a cry.

The alarm was raised and Dr C. Young and Mr William McAuley, a bathing attendant, with other bathers, made a search for the body, which they eventually recovered.

Dr Young, Dr Boyd Campbell, a Belfast specialist; Dr Hall Stewart, of Randalstown; and Dr Ritchie, of Castlerock, were all on the scene and artificial respiration was tried, while an injection was also given, but all in vain.

It was stated that Dr Picken was able to swim, but that heavy seas were running at the time of the tragedy, and that he may have had a heart attack.

A sad feature of the tragedy was the fact that Mr And Mrs Picken had only been married for a short period of time. She was formerly Miss Walker, a daughter of Mr Laurence Walker of Belfast.

Dr Picken, or Major Picken, M.C., as he was better known to many people, was only in his mid-40s. He served with the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskillings as medical officer during the Great War, and was held in high esteem.

He was almost as well known in Londonderry as in Belfast. He was medical referee under the National Health Insurance, and frequently attended Londonderry in that capacity. He had attended a medical referee's session in the Maiden City in the week prior to his death.

Dr Picken was a governor of Londonderry Infirmary and a life member of the Londonderry Branch of the British Legion. Many of those who knew him well in Londonderry recalled that Mr Ben M. Hunter, M.M., who was a member of Limavady Urban Council, was his medical orderly during the Great War.

Dr Picken was the third son of Dr James Picken, Hazelbank, Randalstown, and Mrs Picken, O.B.E., Richmond Crescent, Belfast. Educated at Belfast Royal Academy and Queen's University, he took his degree in June 1914. On the outbreak of the Great War two months later he volunteered for service, and received a commission in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was posted to the Ulster Division as medical officer to the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskillings, with whom he served during the campaign. He was twice mentioned in despatches and was awarded the Military Cross. His brother, Andrew, was a secretary of Queen's University.

Several months after his death, on October 20, 1935, over one hundred of his old comrades attended a memorial service for Dr Picken in Great James Street Presbyterian Church.

It was members of the 10th Old Comrades' Association, headed by the Hamilton Fife and Drum Band, a large number of which served with the 10th Battalion, who marched to the church to pay tribute and honour his memory.

The preacher was the Very Reverend Dr Gilbert Paton, M.C., M.A., ex- Moderator of the General Assembly, and a chaplain to the 10th Inniskillings.

During the address, he (Dr Paton) wanted to say three things about Dr Picken, who would have been one of the first to object to a service of this sort if he could. First, he was young. He came to them as a boy, and he remained a boy to the very end. Yet none of them would take advantage of his youth when his duty lay before him. They forgot he was a boy when they saw him doing the duty he did so well.

Secondly, he was brave. They all knew of his services in the Battalion, in the line and out of the line, whenever he was called upon. The speaker then read an account of some of Dr Picken's brave actions in the face of danger which were written down by a few of his comrades. He was generous, Dr Paton continued, and many parcels he had given to him were passed on to somebody who needed them. He was generous enough to become a Governor of the Derry Infirmary and a life member of the Derry Branch of the British Legion.

Dr Picken was very unhappy when the old 10th Battalion was disbanded and he was sent to another Battalion. "There is one sight which will never leave my eyes," the speaker said. "The band of the 10th was to go to the 2nd at that time. That very gallant officer, now Mayor of the City of Derry, who has the good wishes of not only everyone in the city, but of everyone who served in the Ulster Division, asked Dr Picken and I to go out with him along the road and accompany the band. When he stopped he said: 'Boys, let me hear it once again,' and the band played the March Past, 'Derry's Walls.' When it was over the three of us saluted and without another word we went back."

Thirdly, Dr Picken was loyal. He was not only loyal in the usual sense of the word. He was loyal to his family and to his friends. He was loyal to that gracious old lady who throughout the long years of the war went to the Belfast docks every morning, summer and winter, through rain and snow, to open a buffet and give welcome to the soldiers returning from France. It was his mother. Dr Paton also referred in feeling terms to Dr Picken's widow, who, he said, came to brighten his life in his last few days.

"Dr Picken," he concluded, "was loyal and straight. He played the game and was self-effacing, quiet and gentle."