Lives of the fellows

Leslie John Davis

b.6 August 1899 d.31 October 1980
MB ChB Edin(1924) MD(1930) MRCP(1937) FRCPE(1941) FRCP(1945) FRFPS(1946) FRCPG(1962)

Leslie Davis was born in Kent, the son of John Davis and Rosa Helena Pethebridge. His father, a man of independent means, appears to have been somewhat erratic in the management of his business affairs, with the consequence that Leslie’s education was haphazard. He attended St George’s, Eastbourne, and University College School, London, but left without a formal university entrance qualification. He served at sea in the Naval Auxiliary Service during 1917 -1918.

Undecided whether to seek his future career in agriculture, engineering, or medicine, he attended a ‘crammer’ course and gained admission to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh where he graduated in 1924, being awarded the medal in clinical surgery. After a house appointment in surgery at the Royal Infirmary, Davis spent some months in general practice in Britain and Egypt. On his return to Edinburgh he joined Sir David Wilkie in the newly opened laboratories for surgical research, and the training he received there was to influence his career. He was awarded a research studentship, and an assistantship, in the Wellcome Bureau of Scientific Research. In 1927 he was appointed to the staff of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories in Khartoum, where for the next three years he practised laboratory and clinical medicine under tropical conditions. His MD thesis in 1930 was on the effect of experimental splenectomy in certain protozoal diseases with special reference to feline piroplasmosis.

From 1931 to 1939 Leslie was professor of pathology in the University of Hong Kong, and he was instrumental in establishing a free pathological service for small hospitals in South China. During this time he also served as principal medical officer in the local RNVR, with the rank of lieutenant commander. In 1939, Davis became medical director of the Medical Laboratories of Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, but 1940 saw him back in Edinburgh where he volunteered for military service but was not accepted. He subsequently joined the staff of LSP Davidson’s university department of medicine in the Royal Infirmary as temporary physician and Crichton research scholar. In 1945 he was appointed Muirhead professor in the University of Glasgow and physician in charge of wards in the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow. He held this appointment until he retired in 1961.

The University took a risk in appointing someone of Davis’s unorthodox background and experience to a clinical professorship, and particularly so to one in the Royal Infirmary where, up to that time, more respect had been paid to a man’s practical skill in his craft and his acceptability as a consultant than to his contributions to research and scholarship. To the undisceming the dice might have seemed loaded against him. Somehow, as a laboratory worker, he was expected to maintain the reputation of his University clinical unit for first class clinical practice and teaching, and at the same time he was expected to initiate research based on sound scientific principles, despite the fact that no laboratory facilities were available to him. The closure of the extra-mural medical schools, specifically St Mungo College, shortly after his arrival in Glasgow, provided Davis with the opportunity to set up a laboratory based department of medicine in accommodation adjacent to the Infirmary. He was therefore able to apply the scientific skills he had learned in the laboratory to clinical practice. He must have derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from this development in his career, which also allowed him to achieve a second reputation as a clinical haematologist.

His department prospered and attracted able young men who became active in research and in due course came to occupy senior academic appointments both at home and abroad. Davis set them a fine example in the meaning of service and the obligations of responsibility. Glasgow medicine, and particularly the Royal Infirmary, is largely indebted to him for introducing the scientific method into academic internal medicine. The climate of opinion he created in his hospital was favourable to innovation, the development of sub-specialization and the introduction of research.

He published some sixty original papers and articles, mainly on pathological and haematological themes.

Leslie Davis was a shy and sensitive man. His aloofness could be off-putting on first acquaintance but beneath the reserve, and despite the occasional embarrassing volatile irascibility, which diminished over the years, those who got to know him well found a kindly and considerate character who never bore grudges and who respected those who had the courage of their convictions.

Davis retired to the Isle of Wight in 1961, but he kept in touch with Glasgow and made an annual pilgrimage to meet old friends and to cast a benevolent eye on his former department and its staff. He had probably never greatly enjoyed the administrative responsibilities of his appointment. He gave the impression that he would have preferred to shun them, but from a sense of duty he played a full part in the activities of the faculty of medicine, the senate, the board of management of the Royal Infirmary, and the Western Region Hospital Board. He was for many years a member of the Interuniversity council. For a time he was honorary physician to the Royal Navy in Scotland, an association which gave him a great deal of pleasure.

Outside medicine, Davis’s main interests in his active years were sailing and carpentry. He sailed on the Clyde during the season; building and sailing a number of craft which he kept in fastidious trim and which were among the fastest on the west coast. He continued sailing around the Isle of Wight for a number of years after he retired. As the years went by he became more involved with the less strenuous activity of precision engineering, for which he had a special flair, and he developed a professional expertise. His success in this hobby provided him with a third career and virtually fulfilled a youthful ambition to be an engineer.

Leslie Davis married Marjorie Adelaide, daughter of Arthur Cleveland, an accountant, in 1938. There were no children of the marriage.

EM McGirr

[Brit.med.J., 1980, 281, 1503; Lancet, 1980, 2, 1148]

(Volume VII, page 143)

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