Paul Thackray’s lasting legacy is undoubtedly the medical museum that bears his name. His long-time interest in the medical supply trade, born of a lifetime associated with the family business, was developed to the full with his share of the proceeds from the sale of the Thackray company in 1990. He had always been an avid collector, from postage stamps and coins (once giving a hoard of 10,000 to the British Museum) to medical products. In 2019 he made a personal contribution in memory of his wife, Louise, towards the major redevelopment of the museum and he continued to make valuable donations in kind until he died.
Thackray’s was already a successful business when Paul was born. His father, Noel, and his uncle, Tod, were sons of Charles F Thackray, whose business started in 1902 as a corner-shop pharmacy which included a forge at the back for instrument repairs. The shop’s location opposite the Leeds General Infirmary was key to its development because surgeons could have bespoke instruments made for them at premises conveniently a stone’s throw from their work.
By the time Paul joined the company in the 1960s, Thackray’s was a thriving concern, with additional premises in Park Street, a London office and substantial manufacturing sites in Leeds, Sheffield and Rotherham. He had intended to join the family business only temporarily following his education at Malvern College and completing National Service overseas, where he worked in a garrison medical centre. However, after a stint in the firm doing jobs that ranged from making the tea to order assembly, Paul’s interest in Thackray’s products grew and he decided to stay on. He gained experience in different departments, including a year in the London office and a spell as a representative.
Family members were given a chance to work for the company but Paul maintained that they wouldn’t accept anyone who wasn’t up to the job. Since he had grown up with the business, it is no surprise that he had a detailed knowledge of most aspects of the trade. By the end of the 1970s the business was flourishing, with substantial capital investment, and increased manufacturing and overseas sales. It was at this time that Paul’s cousin John took over from his father as Managing Director, with Paul as Deputy. Broadly speaking, John took responsibility for sales and marketing, Paul for purchasing. Paul felt that their respective roles were complementary: John seeing the bigger picture, Paul homing in on the detail.
A decade on, now predominantly in orthopaedics, and specialising in hip replacements developed with surgeon Sir John Charnley, Thackray’s needed substantial investment to develop and it was at this point that the directors agreed that selling to a compatible business was the only way forward. Although Paul had not intended to retire for another few years, the sale of the business gave him the freedom to express his abiding interest in the history of pharmacy and medicine.
A suitable home for a new museum became available at St James’s Hospital in a Grade II Listed building that was no longer needed. A successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in 1994 released a £3 million grant, significantly the first to be awarded in the Leeds region. The museum opened in 1997; its success was clearly recognised by the HLF as they chose it as the venue to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2004. Guests included stakeholders from across the Yorkshire and Humber region who were overwhelmingly positive in their comments about the museum’s collection and its work.
Paul and his fellow trustees were keen to keep the Thackray name in the title because without the family business, the museum would never have existed. Paul’s commitment never wavered. From its early days, he was closely involved in the day-to-day running of the museum, and he continued to research and donate medical artefacts all his life.
Yorkshire born and bred, and a career spent in a Leeds-based medical company, it is perhaps not surprising that Paul was keen to show that, Thackray’s aside, much medical manufacture and supply, such as Johnson & Johnson, and Smith & Nephew, originated and continued to be in his home county.
Today, the Thackray Museum of Medicine welcomes more than 60,000 visitors a year, of whom 20,000 are from schools; it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile and lasting legacy from someone whose passion was to share the unique history of medical supply.
Paul Thackray, born 13 May 1939, died 14 August 2023, is survived by his first wife, Lynn, son Craig and daughter Claire, together with grandchildren Zia and Zoe. His second wife, Louise, died in 2018.
Paul is thought to have donated thousands of items to our 75,000+ collection of medical supplies, right up until the summer of his passing. We discuss this lasting legacy here.