Lives of the fellows

John Rogers (Sir) Ellis

b.15 June 1916 d.16 June 1998
Kt(1980) MBE(1943) BA Cantab(1937) MRCS LRCP(1941) MB BChir(1941) MRCP(1947) MA(1955) MD(1955) FRCP(1955) Hon MD Uppsala(1977)

A former dean of the London Hospital Medical School, John Ellis was an influential expert on medical education. The third son of Frederick William Ellis, the medical superintendent who transformed the old Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary into the Dudley Road Hospital, John Ellis was educated at Oundle and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He went on to the London Hospital, qualifying in 1941. After a year of junior posts, including being a receiving room officer during the Blitz, he joined the RNVR in 1942. In the Mediterranean he won the MBE for rescuing survivors of a bombed hospital ship, swimming repeatedly to save the injured from an oil slick which was on fire. Later he escorted a party of former prisoners of war home across Canada despite a railway accident which left them snowbound for 48 hours.

After the war and a brief spell of general practice in Plymouth, he became a supernumerary registrar on the medical unit of the London Hospital under Clifford Wilson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.524], took the MRCP in 1947, and was soon running the introductory and membership courses and developing into a brilliant teacher. He was appointed sub-dean in 1948. He threw himself into every kind of students’ activity and, when the need arose, interceded for them with matron’s office or the Leman Street constabulary. Appointed consultant physician in 1951, Ellis now made medical education the object of his serious research.

He was assistant registrar at the Royal College of Physicians from 1957 to 1961 and on the Council from 1969 to 1972. The education committee sent him round every medical school in the UK and Scandinavia. A Rockefeller fellowship enabled him to do the same in the USA. In 1957, backed by Lord Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60], he started off the Association for the Study of Medical Education as a fact-finding group whose studies were reported in a new journal which he edited (and at first, largely wrote). To do all this he forfeited all but four of his paid clinical sessions, virtually all of his private practice and ultimately his health, succumbing to pulmonary tuberculosis which in those days meant many months of sanatorium treatment. On recovering, he found himself much in demand as an expert on medical education, called in whenever a new medical school was being planned, or an old one found itself in difficulty.

In 1964 he was invited to become part time principal medical officer at the Ministry of Health with the special remit of postgraduate medical education. He jumped at the opportunity because (he once confided) he was ‘angry at the way young doctors in Britain are so cruelly exploited. In the 1950s the Ministry of Health saw its function as limited to the care of patients, with no responsibility for training. The profession…saw no need to do anything, except use the young as grossly underpaid personal assistants.’

Armed with his knowledge of students and his experience of teaching methods all over the world, he wrote the basic paper for the Christchurch Conference out of which came the system of postgraduate deans, clinical tutors, postgraduate centres and study leave.

He served on the Todd Royal Commission on Medical Education, which in 1968 recommended the merger of the thirty little university medical institutions in London into six large enough to be viable.

John Ellis became dean at the London in 1968. He at once instigated a number of reforms: he increased student numbers from 80 to 120; he set out to attract undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge, and he worked indefatigably for the merger between the London, Bart’s and Queen Mary College which Todd (and he) had recommended.

Ellis would have no truck with those who opposed elitism. He wrote ‘if we cease to seek for excellence we must fail in our purpose and the future will be left to take care of itself…in medical education the best must be demonstrated, and evaluated, and then bettered. Therefore in and around medical schools there must be practice of a higher quality than anywhere else.’ To this end he established professorial units in almost every specialty in medicine and surgery, whenever possible jointly with Bart’s.

He attacked the mindless memorizing of facts to which preclinical medical students were then subjected by the syllabus and the weaker sort of teacher. He fostered BSc courses to encourage in depth investigation. He strengthened the tutorial system, knowing that students needed help to integrate what was taught so patchily during the clinical course. Despite all this activity, John Ellis remained a highly regarded and hard-working physician, concerned with the whole person, mind as much as body.

Down the years he gave many eponymous lectures and was made an honorary member of institutions all over the world, including the Royal Flemish Academy of Medicine and the Swedish Medical Society. He was proudest of all when the University of Uppsala awarded him an honorary doctorate.

He married Joan Davenport, a physiotherapist, in 1942. They had two sons, of whom one is a consultant physician in Birmingham, and two daughters, of whom one is a nurse. He wrote fluently, mainly on medical education. He was a keen gardener, talented painter and a sensitive though private poet. He was knighted in 1980. His portrait by John Ward RA hangs in the lecture theatre named after him at the London. After retirement he was president of the Medical Protection Society. In his 82nd year there came a relapse of his old tuberculosis, which seemed at first to be controlled, but was in fact camouflaging a bronchogenic carcinoma.

John Blandy

[The Times 23 June 1998]

(Volume XI, page 179)

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