Saxton trained as a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He also joined the Inter-Hospitals Socialist Society, a forum of debate on matters of social medicine. It was here that he met fellow socialist, Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit. During this period Saxton decided to become a member of the Reading Branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Other members included William Ball and Thora Silverthorne.
Saxton qualified as a doctor in 1935. After visiting the Soviet Union, he became a general practitioner in Reading. As Patrick Reade has pointed out: "Attending lectures at Transport House in London and studying economics at Reading Public Library persuaded him that only the left wing had the answers to the social inequalities of the Thirties."
On 8th August 1936, a group of doctors, medical students and nurses met in London to consider ways of sending medical help to Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Medical Association and addressed by Isabel Brown. As a result it was decided to form a Spanish Medical Aid Committee. Other important members of this group included Leah Manning, George Jeger, Lord Faringdon, Arthur Greenwood, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Harry Pollitt and Mary Redfern Davies. Saxon volunteered to be a member of the medical team sent to Spain.
According to Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who was chosen to head British Medical Unit sent to Spain, the Communist Party of Great Britain played an important role in the establishment of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. In his autobiography, Very Little Luggage, he describes being taken by Isobel Brown to be briefed by Harry Pollitt, the leader of the CPGB. However, Sinclair-Loutit insisted: "I was going to Spain with a medical unit supported by all shades of decent opinion in Britain. I felt that I had a very heavy responsibility towards its members and towards those who were sending us. We were a small unit and I was not going to do anything behind the backs of its members... I went on to say that a party fraction was being established in the Unit and since I was sure that its members had the work as much to heart as the rest of us it was hard to see why it had seemed necessary to create it." He then went on to complain about the addition of CPGP member, Hugh O'Donnell, to the unit.
Saxton was one of the first people to volunteer to serve with the British Medical Unit in Spain. He also persuaded several other left-wing people from Reading to join him. This included Roy Poole, John Boulting, Rosamund Powell and Thora Silverthorne. Saxton and Harry Jones played a role in encouraging Josh Francis, William Ball, Frank Hillsley, George Middleton and Jimmy Moon to join the International Brigades.
Saxton issued a statement in December 1936 that said: "We are going to help the wounded of both sides... We cannot of course park on both sides, so we shall go out on the side of the government, with whom we have sympathy as the democratically elected Government of Spain. We have no sympathy with the rebels whom, we believe, are trying to establish a military dictatorship over the Spanish people."
Saxton joined the First British Hospital established by Kenneth Sinclair Loutit at Grañén near Huesca on the Aragon front. Other doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers at the hospital included Alex Tudor-Hart, Archie Cochrane, Penny Phelps, Peter Spencer, Annie Murray, Julian Bell, Richard Rees, Nan Green, Lillian Urmston, Thora Silverthorne and Agnes Hodgson. Saxton later recalled, "there was only dirt and filth and rats and a stinking courtyard".
Hank Rubin was another volunteer attached to the unit: "The transfusionist for our Granen hospital was Dr. Reginald (Reggie) Saxton from England, who was also my superior in the lab. One of the first of the English doctors to arrive, he had first worked on the Aragon front. Slim, tall, blond, and soft-spoken, he taught me much of what I needed to know in the lab and helped in the accumulation of more and better equipment."
Saxton later recalled: "Gradually people... sort of decided they wanted to go where there really was something to do... helping with the wounded... I thought it was time I moved on too... I went to Barcelona and with one or two others we were incorporated into a French Battalion - XIVth International Brigade - Franco-Belge... French speaking more or less."
According to Patrick Reade Saxton was "frustrated by the internal politics" of the hospital and joined the 35th Medical Division Unit, attached to the French Battalion the XIV International Brigade. This involved supporting Republican troops at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. This included setting up a field hospital with Dr. Alex Tudor-Hart, in a country club, at Villarejo de Salvanés using the bar as a theatre, and operating on three table-tops.
On 29th August 1937 Saxton wrote to his father about his experiences in Spain: "On that front things have gone very badly indeed. The work we had in June and July was very heavy and there must have been tremendous losses of men, but the Government has gained a certain amount of territory on the various fronts on which it has attacked. I know those two attacks we had through our front line hospital 900 in five days, and 2,000 in three weeks. The war doesn't look like ending for a long time yet."
Saxton provided medical help at the Battle of Teruel. He later recalled: "It was a very hard battle, there were heavy losses. The terrain was very difficult; mountainous and muddy and snow bound, and most of the time very cold. Our patients were treated in all sorts of odd buildings and we were subjected to air attack and to snipers even, if you got anywhere near the enemy side of the town. We did acquire a lot of medical equipment, foreign equipment, which was in Teruel the time it was taken.
Later, Saxton recorded how he sometimes treated Nationalist soldiers: "A Moor ... had been shot in the leg and so immobilised somewhere in the mountains... Five days before they found him... he was a starving wizened little chap with this horrible septic leg... he came in and the leg was crawling with maggots... the Spanish surgeon had to amputate... he was hardly fit to stand an amputation... After the operation he was weaker still, nevertheless the local Anarchist military chief came in and cross examined the poor fellow... He died within a day or so."
While in Spain, Saxton fell in love with a medical administrator, Rosaleen Smythe. He later admitted: "As time went by I felt that she and I merged into one person. But marriage was a much smaller thing than the war and it was something we never talked about."
Saxton told the authors of We Cannot Park on Both Sides (2000): "We had at that time no transfusion syringes and no satisfactory needles. I collected, however, two sets of instruments to enable me to dissect a vein and insert a cannula (a thin tube). The blood was poured into a funnel and led by a rubber tube to a cannula."
Norman Bethune, a doctor serving with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, observed that a frequent cause of death in war is medical shock brought on by loss of blood. Bethune decided the best way of dealing with this problem was to administer blood transfusions on the battlefield and developed the world's first mobile medical unit. Bethune worked closely with Saxton on this strategy. As Patrick Reade points out: "Up to 3,000 samples of blood were processed by these mobile labs, which included autoclaves, incubators, fridges and ovens. This was a major contribution to the medical welfare of the Republican war effort."
According to Paul Preston: "Saxton worked out new methods for blood transfusions, thereby saving many lives. He also classified the blood of every brigadier who might be a potential casualty or donor and, wherever possible, of locals. One of the greatest contributions to military medicine of the Republican medical services, and one in which Saxton played a significant role, was the organisation that permitted early treatment at forward field hospitals, backed up by mobile surgical hospitals."
Reginald Saxton later explained how the system worked on the battlefield: "In this laboratory we had blood donors and I used to do blood grouping. We gathered quite a lot of volunteers to be blood donors. We were a medical unit working for the army and were insulated very much from the civilian troubles that existed. Just occasionally, civilian difficulties would overflow into our work. Getting together volunteer blood donors meant contact with the various civilian organizations that might help or provide us with these donors. There was a little bit of antagonism between them. The Socialist Party would be a bit edgy about the Communist Party or the Republican Party, i.e. who is really going to organize it, who is the more important of these three organizations? Feelings of resentment between these groups interfered to a large extent with the welfare side of the hospital."
Saxton used this new system at Ebro. "At the Ebro I was actually there with my mobile laboratory... We set up a hospital in some caves on our side of the river to receive casualties at the beginning of the attack. We had this hospital in this cave and the cave was on two levels inside. It had been levelled up inside and was very nicely protected by this enormous hill over the top of it. It was lit up with electric lighting, which an American engineer did for us. On one level there was a ward and an operating theatre, and on another level another ward. In the end we found that we were using one ward for Republican soldiers and the other ward for prisoners of war, and in the valley just below the caves were canteens and feeding arrangements, ambulance parks and a tent or two. It was quite well arranged."
Saxton was kept very busy at Ebro: "The front line was along the... river. I The left hand bank I was in Republican hands, right hand in Fascist. It was a very well planned offensive... very well organised. As soon as some territory had been cleared on the other side of the river... we... went across a pontoon bridge. It was very exciting in a way, going across a pontoon bridge which the Spanish engineers had organised so well. They had spare pontoons camouflaged in various places not far away to hide them from the aviation. Every day Italian planes would come over and try and destroy the pontoon bridge. Indeed they hit it on numerous occasions, but since it was all sections standard size boats... the same evening an exactly similar pontoon was floated into position and things were got going again."
After the Republican forces were defeated in the Spanish Civil War, Saxton left Spain. He later recalled: "I felt pretty bad... like rats running out of the sinking ship." On his return he became assistant medical office of health for Brighton. He planned to marry Rosaleen Ross but because of objections from his family she decided to return to Canada.
In 1962 he began working with Dr Julian Tudor Hart in Glyncorrwg, a mining village in the Rhondda Valley. He was the son of Alex Tudor-Hart, a former colleague at the First British Hospital at Grañén near Huesca on the Aragon front.
After the death of his wife in 1998 he went to live with Rosaleen Ross in Canada. They returned to live in England in 2002. He remained active in politics and was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and campaigned passionately against the war in Iraq.
Reginald Saxton died in Worthing on 27th March 2004.