Lives of the fellows

Kenneth William Cross

b.26 March 1916 d.10 October 1990
MRCS LRCP(1940) MB BS Lond(1941) MRCP(1942) PhD(1947) FRCP(1965)

Kenneth William Cross, born in London, was one of the signal successes of Lord Moran's way of picking likely students of medicine; going up to St Mary’s from St Paul’s School and passing the membership examination of the College within two years of his qualification in 1940. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly in so combative a character, he was a pacifist by conviction and his service during the war was with the Friends Ambulance Brigade in China, an experience of which he seldom spoke.

On his return he abandoned what looked like becoming a very distinguished career as a physician to join Huggett’s department of physiology. He took up the study of foetal and neonatal physiology as a kind of intellectual grandchild of Sir Henry Barcroft, becoming a leading member of the group of physiologists, paediatricians and veterinarians who founded the Neonatal Society - of which he subsequently became president when his turn came round. He was promoted to reader in 1952 and moved from St Mary’s to the London Hospital as professor in 1960, a post which he occupied with distinction until 1981.

In 1963 he became honorary director of an MRC group on the respiration and energy metabolism in the newborn. In 1974 he gave the Bertram Louis Abrahams lecture at the College on ‘Investigating the newborn: the ethical imperative’.

Cross’ work as a physiologist involved the careful but non-invasive study of human infants: on the management and course of events in birth asphyxia, on the relation between ambient temperature and oxygen concentration on metabolic rate, on the significance of Head’s so-called paradoxical reflex in lung expansion and on cerebral blood flow. To facilitate these studies he invented the phrenic stimulator and plethysmographic methods for measuring oxygen consumption and cerebral blood flow - the famous ‘Cross box’.

His contributions to infant physiology were characteristically simple - once thought of; practical and applicable to everyday clinical problems. They were carried out with scrupulous regard to ethical principles and they led to his training a long series of research assistants in scientific method, many of whom came to be practising neonatologists as the specialty grew into a major component of clinical paediatrics. Nearly all of them ended up as devoted friends and admirers and one of them, Sheila Lewis, became his second wife and is now a paediatrician.

Cross was a forthright character who had no time for those whom he considered fools or knaves, being no respecter of status or position though he was of persons. This may have been the reason why he was inexplicably passed over for election to the fellowship of the Royal Society, an honour that he probably coveted and manifestly deserved. Indeed, Huggett once said, with characteristic generosity, that his own election was in recognition of work carried out by Kenneth Cross.

His first wife, Joyce Wilson née Lack, a depressive like himself, committed suicide in 1970. There were no children of the marriage but he was loved by and very devoted to Joyce's daughter by a previous marriage and her family. For the sake of his family and friends, Cross usually managed to convert his underlying depression into the boisterous high spirits which made him an amusing companion both at work and play. But the effort cost him dear and was paid for in long hours of gloom and despondency, made bearable by the understanding and sustained affection of his second wife, with whom he had a mutually fulfilling relationship.

Kenneth Cross' career provides in itself a justification for the recruitment of medically qualified basic scientists. He deserves much of the credit for neonatology having become par excellence the branch of medicine in which knowledge of physiology has been directly and successfully applied to patient care. It was for this achievement that he was awarded the Sir James Spence medal - the highest award of the British Paediatric Association.

J A Davis

[Brit.med.J., 1990,301,1211; The Times, 19 Oct 1990;The Independent, 15 Oct 1990; The Guardian, 19 Oct 1990; Arch.Disease in Childhood, 1979,54,489-49l; St. Mary's Hosp. Gaz., 1960,66,180-181]

(Volume IX, page 107)

<< Back to List