George never saw his son and grandson achieve fame and success. He died, penniless, at the age of 40, when Mike was just 12 years old. It took two autopsies to confirm that George had died of Addison’s.
This was 1955. The new miracle drug that would have saved him - cortisone acetate - had been available in the UK for five years, but nobody thought to test him for Addison’s until too late. Instead, doctors had told him his deteriorating health was due to overwork, or to the stress of being an unemployed footballer who couldn’t work to support his young family. Cortisone acetate was to become freely available and the staple ingredient of the many pain relief injections his younger son Mike was given in his legs during his playing career. Despite this, it was the football that his widow, Dulcie, was bitter about - not the Addison’s. George’s older brother Gordon had signed for Aldershot Town the same season, in 1933. But George’s football career soon outshone his brother and he moved up to Preston, where he met Dulcie on a bus. When they got serious, he asked if she would wash his kit. From Preston, he transferred to Chester and then Barrow, requiring some lengthy absences from Dulcie, now his wife, and their two young boys, John and Mike. In 1950, at the age of 36, he became player-manager for Cheltenham Town.
Cheltenham Town was a struggling team with no spare cash. Dulcie worked full-time to help pay the family bills. On match days, she would make the tea and sandwiches, then wash the kit. She and George used to clean the litter out from under the stands. In Dulcie’s words, “He tried so hard, it was awful.”
By now, his health was failing and he rarely played a game. In 1952 his contract was not renewed on the grounds of ill health. The family nearly lost their home and George was too ill to attend the court hearing, so Dulcie had to go on her own. Then George found work as a warehouse storeman.
Family recollections of George’s last few years are poignant. He acquired an instant tan in the sun but was constantly, painfully cold. The palms of his hands went dark. He was so thin he looked tubercular, with his eyes receding into their sockets. In the bath, you could see deep brown patches on his back. He was impotent. When he walked, the former footballer was so weak he would stagger. He became so weak that at times he couldn’t get up again when he sat down. He was ice cold to the touch. His son Mike remembers being woken in the night by their mother, asking her boys to help rub their father’s legs because they were freezing cold and he couldn’t use them. George told his older son, John, that he believed he was dying.
In 1955, a few days before he died, the doctor diagnosed 'nerves' and advised a fortnight’s rest at the seaside. His brother Gordon came with the car to take him to Bournemouth, but the journey was too much for him. He collapsed within hours of arriving and was taken to hospital. Dulcie got to the hospital just 45 minutes after he died. A doctor ushered her into a side room to explain it was Addison’s.
George Morley Summerbee, professional footballer, born October 1914, died April 1955, Addison’s diagnosed at autopsy.
Compiled by Katherine White
Source: Colin Shindler, Fathers, Sons and Football, 2001
MIKE SUMMERBEE RECALLS
Mike Summerbee, the former Manchester City and England winger, kindly spoke to the ADSHG about his memories of his father, George.
I was only twelve years old when my father died, so I don’t have many memories of him as a young man, in his prime. When I was a young boy, he was away a lot of the time because we lived in Preston, but he played for Barrow. It doesn’t seem like a long way now, but in those days the travel wasn’t so easy. He was a good footballer, but he never had the luck and the breaks that I had, and he never got to watch me play.
I remember my father well from his days as player-manager at Cheltenham Town, when the Addison’s was starting to affect his health. He and my mother, they both worked so very hard there, but it all went wrong because of his health and he lost his job. While he was at Cheltenham Town, my brother John and I spent a lot of our time at the ground; every holidays, especially through the summertime, we were there with him. I don’t know if he ever thought either of his sons would be a player. Then, quite suddenly, it all went so wrong for him. We nearly lost our house when the club got rid of him.
None of us really expected him to die. My mother didn’t realise how ill he was, neither did the doctor, and my brother John and I certainly didn’t realise how serious it was. People get ill; you think they will recover. In that final year or so, I used to stand in the window and watch him coming home from his job at the warehouse. He could hardly walk properly, he was so weak. Even when my mother had to wake us in the night to warm his legs, we didn’t realise it could kill him. Addison’s was one of those things that we never knew about. I wasn’t there with him when he died, but I do have clear memories. I was playing football in a youth game at Cheltenham Town that evening and I was expecting him to come and watch me play. I didn’t know that my uncle had come to take him to Bournemouth that day, to convalesce, nor that he had collapsed and been rushed to the nearest hospital, Cirencester. I just kept looking for him in the stands all evening and he never came. So he never got to see me play.
His death affected my brother more than me. John could have been a player, but he packed it in, didn’t have anything more to do with football. John and I didn’t go to the funeral either, my mother didn’t want us to go. But a lot of people from the football world did go and pay their respects.
Respect is, I think, the quality I most learned from my father. I always finished a game with respect. You become more aware of other people’s needs after you have been close to someone who is very ill. It makes you spend more time thinking about other people and less about yourself. You realise you just have to get on with it. I wasn’t the only footballer of my generation to have lost a father young. It does make you appreciate that you don’t know when it’s all going to be over, when your time will be up.
It’s been a good milestone for me, to be able to follow him into the game. If he had been diagnosed in time, he could have survived and had a second career as a manager, he could have seen his son and grandson play at the highest level. I am now an ambassador for Manchester City, which is the kind of thing he could have done. When I was getting cortisone injections for my knees, I always used to think, my father could have survived if he’d had this. But we didn’t know there was a cure. His grandson, Nicky, never saw his grandfather, but we made sure he knew about him. Although it’s difficult to pass on what you know to the next generation, we did our best to explain to him who his grandfather was. So Nicky finished up, the same as me, having played at the highest level in the game. And we are both smart dressers, we get that from him.
Mostly, I think my father would have wanted to be remembered as a good sportsman. Which he was.
As interviewed by Katherine White
A “GOLDEN OLDIE” RECALLS
Having read George Summerbee’s sad story, I could only think how incredibly lucky I had been. I was diagnosed in 1952 - 58 years ago - at a time when location was paramount to the diagnosis and treatment you received. I was treated at a hospital in east London, not far from St Bartholomew’s, where I transferred to later, historically the UK’s leading centre of adrenal expertise. This was something I was not aware of at the time; I was 15 years old and living at home with my parents in the East End.
Although cortisone acetate was around, it was regarded as extraordinarily expensive. I still recall that my medical notes had to go to the Minister of Health for his personal agreement that I could receive this treatment. Before cortisone acetate became available, I used to receive DOCA pellets. These were surgically inserted into my stomach every four to six months. The problem with DOCA pellets was that nobody could discern when they would cease to be of benefit to me, so I would be going about my daily routine and suddenly I would pass out. This happened in all sorts of places – bus stops, railway platforms. Only on one occasion did a member of the public think that perhaps I had been drinking.
The first my parents knew about the possibility of a wonder drug was when the police came to our house one Sunday afternoon. We didn’t have the luxury of a telephone so the hospital had asked the police to pass on the message that we needed to report to the hospital, where the Senior Registrar would meet us. As you can imagine, we couldn’t think what the outcome would be. We met in the boardroom where the registrar explained that my notes had been sent to the Minister of Health to see whether I was a justifiable recipient for this super drug, cortisone, as it was so costly. The Minister agreed and I was given this white medicine, where the necessary dosage had to be drawn off with a syringe and then inserted into milk which I drank. In those days I used to take my medicine morning and night so it wasn’t too intrusive into my life. I also remember the dreaded salt tablets. I had to take these enormous pills four at a time and I can still remember the discomfort as they queued up, after swallowing them, to go down my body.
I feel so sorry that George’s family had to watch him suffering without knowing what was happening to him.
This article will have brought back memories for many of us, about our experiences as our symptoms manifested themselves. We have to count our blessings, in that medical knowledge of Addison has improved a hundredfold over the years.
Pat Beeching is a longstanding member of the ADSHG; she was diagnosed in 1952, some three years before the death of George Summerbee.
These articles were first published in the ADSHG newsletter in June 2010.