The son of a botany lecturer, Saxton was born in Cape Town on July 13th 1911 and then spent his childhood in India. His family returned to England in 1920 and he was educated at Repton School in Derbyshire. He went on to read medicine at Sydney College, Cambridge.
Saxton (pictured left in Spain) joined the Communist Party in 1935, after buying a Daily Worker at Paddington Station, where he travelled daily as a commuter to work from Reading. Having trained at St Barts, he qualified as a doctor in 1935. He visited the Soviet Union and returned to become a GP in Reading.
In August 1936, he was one of a group of qualified and student medical workers who met to consider ways of providing medical aid to Spain. This led to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. On 23rd August, the first unit left for Spain. The English hospital was set up in a farmhouse in Hesca, 18 kilometres behind the Aragon front. Saxton arrived there himself on 29th September.
This hospital group later played a major role in the battle for Madrid. An improvised hospital was set up at a hotel up to February 1937. Ferocious fighting broke out around the fascist attempts to encircle the capital. With Dr Alexander Tudor-Hart and others, Saxton set up a field hospital in a country club, using the bar as a theatre and the furniture as operating tables. In the first five days, 700 wounded were treated.
Norman Bethune, the Canadian Communist who had pioneered blood transfusion in China for the Red Army arrived and he passed on many lessons. Saxton worked out new methods for blood transfusions and classified the bloods of donors. He played a significant role in the pioneering by the Republican forces in the use of forward field hospitals, backed up by mobile surgical hospitals.
In May 1937, he organised transfusion services in a hospital set up in a mountain ski station. Then back to a hospital just outside Madrid. Saxton’s transfusion services proved crucial during the July 1937 diversionary offensive at Brunete. 50,000 Republican troops smashed through the fascist lines and kept the resulting salient at the cost of 20,000 of them.
At yet another base, El Escorial, Saxton vainly treated Julian Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf. In the autumn of 1937, Saxton was back at a hospital in the area he first been. By January 1938 he was at Teruel. He designed a mobile testing laboratory, fitted on the chassis of a bomb-damaged Ford ambulance.
During the three month offensive across the River Ebro during the summer of 1938, which aimed to link the two halves of fascist Spain, Saxton took his mobile transfusion unit to a hospital cave.
His work on transfusions was published in the Lancet and would inform the setting up of blood banks in wartime Britain.
In Spain, Saxton formed a relationship with a working class medical administrator, Rosaleen Ross (Smythe). On their return, Saxton appears to have failed to sufficiently combat snobbish family hostility towards her and she settled in Vancouver with another International Brigader.
Saxton was Assistant Medical Officer for Health, covering civil defence matters, for Brighton from 1939 to 1941. He rose to become a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Burma and was mentioned in despatches for bravery.
He practiced as a GP in the Brighton area after the war and married an actress. They moved to South Wales to work in medical practice with Tudor-Hart. In post war years, Saxton was active in CND and returned to Brighton on retirement.
Rosaleen and Reggie Saxton were re-united at the 1996 IB reunion. Two years later they went to live together in Canada. In 2001, Saxton took part in a reunion at the cave hospital in Spain. He and Rosaleen returned to Britain in 2002. Ever the campaigner, Saxton was fiercely against the Iraq war. He died on March 27th 2004 in Worthing, aged 92 years.
Sources: Guardian 8th April 2004; Morning Star 19th April 2004