Lives of the fellows

Thomas Renton Elliott

b.11 October 1877 d.4 March 1961
DSO(1918) CBE(1919) BA Cantab(1900) MA Cantab(1904) MD Cantab(1908) MRCP(1910) FRS(1913) FRCP(1915)

T. R. Elliott was born at Wilmington, co. Durham, the son of Archibald William Elliott, who had a general retail business in the town, and of Ann, daughter of Thomas Renton, of Otley, Yorkshire. Signs of unusual character and ability were already evident in the family. His paternal grandfather, starting life as a joiner, qualified himself as a schoolmaster, while his father’s brother, John, after winning a scholarship to Cambridge, joined the Indian Civil Service, later became a member of the Viceroy’s Council, was created K.C.I.E., and, for his work in mathematics and meteorology, elected F.R.S, in 1895.

From Durham School Elliott went, with a leaving exhibition in classics, to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1896, and, in 1901, he took a double first in the natural sciences tripos. Unfortunately, a serious attack of typhoid fever in his third year not only delayed his graduation, but entangled him with College statutes which prevented his otherwise certain election to a fellowship of his own college; but, two years after he had left Cambridge, he was elected a fellow of Clare College.

Between 1900 and 1906 he carried out a series of physiological researches which were of well-nigh incomparable brilliance and authority for a worker so young in years and experience. His interests lay in the effects of the autonomic nervous system, and his attention was early caught by the resemblance between these effects and those of adrenaline. This led him to propose the concept of the chemical transmission of nerve impulses, thereby anticipating by nearly a quarter of a century the flood of work in this field. His election to the Royal Society in 1913 was a recognition well merited.

In 1906 he resumed his medical studies and only four short years later was appointed assistant physician to University College Hospital, London. With his brilliant scientific background it was inevitable that he should be attracted to the serious study then being made of the structure of medical education. Among the proposals put forward by the Haldane Commission was that recommending the creation of whole-time professorships in clinical subjects.

The outbreak of the First World War halted this work. Within a month Elliott was in France, and during the next four years he discovered his power for combining science and administration. On demobilisation he became one of the new whole-time clinical professors in London. All expected a spate of clinical researches comparable to those that had distinguished his early days in physiology, but this did not occur.

To what extent this was due to a change in the man or to a conscious decision will never be known; what is certain is that Elliott, with complete self-effacement, devoted himself to bringing forward the new generation of leaders, and to using his fine combination of intellectual and administrative powers to create the structure of modern clinical medicine. No man was more deserving of his honours.

For many years he was a member of the Medical Research Council, a trustee of the Beit memorial fellowship and a trustee of the Wellcome Foundation. In 1914 he delivered the first Sidney Ringer lecture at University College, and in 1920 was awarded the gold medal of the West London Medico-Chirurgical Society. In 1947 his old college, Trinity, made him an honorary fellow.

In 1918 he married Martha, daughter of A. K. M’Cosh, of Cairnhill, Airdrie, Lanarkshire, and had three sons and two daughters.

Richard R Trail

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1961, 7, 53-74 (p), bibl.; Brit.med.J., 1961, 1, 752-4 (p); Lancet, 1961, 1, 567-8; Nature (Lond.), 1961, 190, 486-7; Times, 6 Mar. 1961. Trans. Ass. Amer. Phys., 1962, 75, 21-3; Univ. Coll. Hosp. Gaz., 1939, 24, 83-6;]

(Volume V, page 119)

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