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Leigh Ashton: 1908-2000

Category Articles
Date December 1, 2000

How few are the followers of the Lord Jesus with whom we are personally acquainted. Then one day a window is opened upon another life and we are permitted a view of transforming and sustaining grace. So it was when the Times published an obituary of Dr Leigh Ashton (Tuesday, December 19, 2000): ‘A Life in Medical Mission,’ the paper entitled it.

When in the late 1920s Leigh Ashton was a medical student at Bristol University he rowed across the Bristol Docks in a hospital bath. It was because of a dare that he had done it, and he had accepted if on the proviso that any publicity would be used to raise funds for overseas missionary work. He had already begun to follow the Lord Jesus and his mind was turning to the mission field. The escapade was a ‘characteristic marriage of fun, adventure and commitment to his Christianity. He never failed to put the varied situations in which he found himself at the service of his faith.’

Leigh Ashton qualified in medicine in 1931 and three years later he went to Kenya with the Africa Inland Mission. He arrived to establish a hospital at Kapsowar in the hills 250 miles from Nairobi on 16 October 1934 where conditions were very basic. For example, a poor woman came to him with what was an obvious cancer in her arm. In the most primitive of conditions he amputated her arm, saving her life. She came to profess faith in Christ and gave a saving testimony until she died. By his relentless exertions within six years he had developed outposts of medical care throughout the area, crossing mountainous terrain on bare tracks and cutting through dangerous forest paths. Once in his little car he spotted a huge angry buffalo. Should he brake and become a sitting target for its rage, or seek to outrun it? He put his foot down and squeezed a little more speed out of the car. The buffalo also took off, but Leigh just made it around a curve in the road before the beast whizzed past the car. So clinical rounds were maintained, but along with his medical work he established and supported an indigenous church.

In 1935 his fiancée Marion joined him. They were planning to go to Kapsowar to work, but the AIM insisted that should not even travel there together as a couple if they were unmarried. So the boat docked in Mombasa and a few hours later they were married in Mombasa Cathedral. Later that same day they were on their way again to Kapsowar. Their marriage lasted 65 years, Marion dying seven months ago.

When the Second World War broke out Leigh Ashton became a doctor in the King’s African Rifles. In 1945 he returned to work in a mission hospital at Maseno on Lake Victoria. A smallpox epidemic occurred at this time, but through modern medicine it was the last outbreak of the disease in East Africa. In 1946 he developed a general medical practice in Eldoret, 45 miles away. Nairobi was then a day’s journey along dusty roads, so he and his wife covered most aspects of medical and surgical care in the name of Jesus Christ. They were the base to which most of the surrounding missions came for assistance or referred sick people. The Ashtons established the Eldoret Christian Fellowship. Camps were started for young people, and there were visits to schools and Bible classes begun. His work in Kapsowar was inherited and developed by Dr W. B. Young a Scottish rugby international who, now in his eighties, paid a tribute to his predecessor at the memorial service outside Bedford.

In 1964 the Ashtons returned home and took up general practise. One might think that would be the end of their involvement in overseas mission but in 1970 Leigh Ashton spotted an advertisement for short-term surgeons to work in the hospitals of central Thailand. So at 62 years of age off they went again. He became a surgeon at the mission hospitals at Monorom and Nongbua and spiritual counsellor to those with whom he worked, both Thai and expatriate mission staff.

An infection caused a heart condition which finally brought them back to the UK. They were involved in Christian work in a Baptist church at Pembury outside Bedford until the end of their lives. They lived in a residential home until Marion had a stroke which took her to an OMF home near Tonbridge Wells where one of her daughters lived. There she lived until the end of her life earlier this year. Leigh Ashton died on November 17 aged 92 and is survived by their son and three daughters. The son played rugby for Bedford and at the funeral service paid a fine tribute to his remarkable father.

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