Heroes like Derek Barrowcliff light up our dark times

Having ended my last blog with the words “What sad times we live in”, I feel I should qualify it. Having just read the obituary of a chap called Derek Barrowcliff who has died aged 92, in the Telegraph for Wednesday, I would add: “But the example of heroic individual lives is always among us.”

Apparently Barrowcliff was a well-known Home Office pathologist who solved the mystery of “Who killed the chauffeur’s wife?” at Stoneleigh Abbey (it turned out to have been the chauffeur). But it is not for his professional standing that I want to applaud him; it is for all the other details we are given. For instance, we learn that as a “midlife convert to Roman Catholicism, Barrowcliff had an unswerving commitment to the rights of the unborn child, a cause he championed with characteristic moral courage”.

For anyone in public life to champion such a cause takes much courage, especially in the medical profession. I once blogged about Jack Scarisbrick, formerly professor of history at Warwick University, who started the Life organisation to help unmarried mothers keep their babies; for a prominent academic to be pro-life it will also require courage to face the scepticism of the senior common room.

We then read: “Active in his faith and as a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society, [Barrowcliff] was still, until he was nearly 90, visiting the elderly in his parish.” What a wonderful picture this gives of a very elderly pensioner still realising there is work to be done in the community, long before David Cameron fashioned the idea of the “Big Society”.

The next paragraph tells us that “when he was invited to be an expert witness in connection with the Shroud of Turin [Barrowcliff] was delighted to be able to combine his religious principles with his scientific practice”. Of course Catholics do not have to believe in the authenticity of the Turin Shroud though I, for one, do so. I think the medical evidence for the crucifixion, shown up on modern MRI scanning and other tests, is overwhelming – so naturally I was glad to learn that this expert pathologist demonstrated that “cuts on the back of the head of a corpse (comparable to the wounds made by the Crown of Thorns) would ‘bleed freely, continuously’.” This was in response to the assertion that “corpses do not bleed”.

Barrowcliff could also enjoy the finer things in life, being a member of the Claret Club for nearly 50 years, as well as being a passionate walker. Indeed, he was walking in the woods near Valbonne in France when he died. But the last detail of his life was for me the most touching; we are told that, married with six children, “for the past 10 years he had devoted himself to looking after his wife … for whom he was the sole carer through her progressive dementia. He was determined to continue caring for her until, as he so disarmingly put it, he himself ‘joined the majority’.”

It is lives like his that continue to give me faith in human beings, whatever the times we live in.