Lives of the fellows

George Ronald Ellis

b.17 April 1907 d.3 February 1992
BA Cantab(1928) MRCS LRCP(1931) MA MB BChir(1933) MRCP(1934) MD(1936) FRCP(1951)

Ronald Ellis was the son of a Liverpool importer and merchant. He was educated at Liverpool College and Christ s College, Cambridge. In 1928 he returned to his native city for his clinical training in medicine. After qualification, through much of the 1930s he honed his natural teaching abilities as medical tutor at Liverpool’s David Lewis Northern Hospital. During this period he was appointed honorary physician to the voluntary hospitals in Birkenhead and Wigan. Typical of the general physicians of this era, his medical interests were wide ranging. The thesis for his doctorate concerned contrast radiography in chest disease, while his publications included such disparate subjects as empyema in pulmonary malignancy, ‘partial thoracic stomach’, gallstones, scurvy, the treatment of bacterial endocarditis and the mechanisms of cardiac failure. As the decade drew to a close, he was appointed honorary physician at the Stanley and Northern Hospitals,two of the city’s teaching hospitals, and almost immediately had to face the major changes that followed the declaration of war. The Armed Services took over the wards and the bulk of medical treatment for civilians was transferred from the city centre and the dockside areas to unsuitable buildings near the outskirts of the city.

Following his return from military service, he became involved in the reorganization of the two hospitals in Birkenhead and so, together with his teaching hospital appointments, there developed a pattern of practice on both banks of the Mersey that was to persist until his retirement in 1972. During the postwar period he developed an increasing interest in cardiovascular disease and this led him to establish a cardiac clinic at the Northern Hospital. Regional cardiothoracic centres were then in their infancy and, as Merseyside’s centre was outside the teaching group, it was unavailable as a source of undergraduate training. In most general medical clinics students were lucky to hear an occasional aortic systolic or third heart sound, but the cardiac clinic seemed to provide an unending succession of opening snaps, aortic thrills, cannon waves, pulsatile livers, souffles and bruits of every possible timing and position. In spite of this rich harvest of physical signs, the main theme of Ronald's teaching was the prime importance of the anamnesis. History taking had to be detailed, never rushed. A student’s acceptance of a vague or unhelpful reply was firmly but tactfully highlighted.

Outside medicine, his interests included archaeology, philosophy and literature. The English language and its etymology was a continuing fascination and the Concise Oxford was always to hand in outpatients, where sessions were usually educational in the widest of senses, well beyond purely clinical matters. His interest in primitive medical beliefs and practise led to a study of comparative religion. He was well aware that even in the 20th century there was a close relationship between magic and medicine. He also enjoyed horticulture and music. He played several wind instruments, finding the clarinet both the greatest delight and the greatest challenge. No doubt it was his interest in music that made him so effective a mentor in the art of auscultation.

After his retirement he had a number of enjoyable years, interrupted by a coronary thrombosis from which he recovered completely. Later spinal pain from Paget’s disease became an increasing problem. During the last few days of 1991 he and his wife, Frances, were involved in a serious road accident. His wife recovered fully, but while still in hospital Ronald had a second myocardial infarction and died in February. His wife and children - John, Cathryn and Hilary - survived him.

R E Fallowfield

[Trans. & Report, 1977-78, Liverpool med.Inst.]

(Volume IX, page 153)

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