Lives of the fellows

Richard White Bernard Ellis

b.25 August 1902 d.15 September 1966
OBE(1945) MRCS LRCP(1926) MB BChir Cantab(1927) MA(1931) MD(1931) MRCP(1932) FRCP(1939) FRCPE(1951) FRSE

Richard Ellis came from a Quaker family long prominent in the civic life of Leicester. Naturally he went to Quaker schools, The Downs and Leighton Park. He went up to King’s College, Cambridge in 1920, joining his elder brother there. They both enjoyed the social and literary life of the university to the full. It is remembered that he looked very young among the ex-servicemen at that time but indeed all his life he appeared younger than his age. His medical heroes at Cambridge were Barcroft and Adrian. He got a second in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1923 and then went to St. Thomas’s Hospital. He qualified in 1926 and went on to the MD and MA in 1931.

Ellis started off in the usual way with house appointments but did not continue, as was then the custom, in his own hospital. He was registrar or chief assistant not only at St. Thomas’s but also at the London and the Westminster Hospitals, as well as the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. He also spent a year most profitably under Blackfan at the Boston Children’s Hospital. He was appointed physician for children’s diseases at Guy’s in 1936 and was soon involved in formulating a claim in which Guy’s Hospital hoped to obtain a share of £200,000, left by Caleb Diplock to the children of Sussex. The executors of the will conceded that quite a number of children from Sussex were treated at Guy’s and so £20,000 was allotted. The children’s wards were then brought up to date and were called Caleb and Diplock.

At about this time, too, he went to Spain to help in the medical examination of 4,000 Basque children who were refugees during the Civil War in Spain. He adopted two of them and saw that they were satisfactorily placed in this country. He was a member of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief from 1937 to 1939.

After the outset of war in Europe he went to Hungary and Rumania to see about the medical care of Polish refugees. Soon after that he was in the Royal Air Force, where he became Wing Commander and served in North Africa, Italy and Belgium. He was mentioned in despatches in 1944, and at the conclusion of his term as Adviser in Medicine to the Mediterranean Allied Air Force he was created OBE. His life as a travelling doctor did not end there; he was to visit other places such as West Africa, India and Indonesia to teach, learn and help. He was quick at making studies, particularly of growth and development, and often returned from such a voyage with a paper half-written.

After he left the Service he settled down at Guy’s to organize the department, becoming himself a full-timer. The hospital and Medical School asked that a Chair of Paediatrics be established but the University of London declined, so it was not surprising that, when he was invited to be Professor of Child Life and Health in Edinburgh he accepted. At first he was not comfortable in the North but as time went on he became attached to the country of his adoption. He had been elected FRCP in 1939, but it gave him great pleasure to be elected FRCP Edinburgh in 1951. He was also an FRS Ed. He found the amount of lecturing required in Edinburgh at that time a surprising task, but he converted his lectures into a popular textbook Diseases in Infancy and Childhood, which appeared in 1951 and ran through five editions in his lifetime.

In the earlier part of his career he had been particularly interested in rare diseases but, as time went on, he became primarily concerned with child development and the social influences which affect it, influences shown in his books Child Health and Development (1949) and Health in Childhood (1961), as well as his Blackfan Memorial Lecture on Social Change in Child Health in 1957. He was Chairman of the Remand Homes Committee of the Scottish Advisory Council for Child Care in 1960-61 and his report led to much-needed reform. He continued for many years to organize teaching in Edinburgh, to attend international meetings, to influence people everywhere. He had been the preux chevalier of young paediatricians early in his career, and his wise counsel, often given with apparent reluctance, was widely held in esteem.

When he was 56 years old a carcinoma was removed. It was the secondaries in the bones that let him down, but he managed to carry on for six years with hardly anyone knowing that he was ill. Eventually he had to resign and in his last two years had further pathological fractures. In his final admission to St. Thomas’s Hospital he saw only people he had invited and most of them only once. To them he appeared, apart from being an invalid in bed, very much the same as usual, the same genial view of life allied to drollery about human motivations. His attitude to children was entirely different, he seemed perfectly at home with them and would relax and tell them stories or join in their outdoor games as though a child himself.

He achieved much in his professional life. Early, he was the ideal of the young, to the seniors the man of promise. Later, he was valued in counsel in affairs concerning children, not only medical problems. Throughout, he went to see for himself where things were not going aright for children. His books were translated into other tongues and read in the four quarters of the globe.

As a companion he was delightful, unhurried, humourous, witty, a painter in oils who appreciated others’ paintings and antique furniture, but he was also someone apart, who would sit at the back of a scientific meeting and unobtrusively leave to go for a walk halfway through the session. He treated his fatal illness with total courage and philosophy.

In 1941 he married Dr. Audrey Russell who had examined Basque children with him five years before. It was a happy marriage and blessed with a son and a daughter.

PR Evans

[Brit.med.J., 1966, 2, 772; Lancet, 1966, 2, 703, 755, 975; Times, 16 Sept 1966; Midwife and Health Visitor,1966, 2, 157; Kings College Cambridge Annual Report 1967]

(Volume VI, page 164)

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