Lives of the fellows

Elozor Leslie Feinmann

b.3 July 1917 d.25 July 1983
MB ChB Manch(1941) MRCP(1949) FRCP(1971)

Being born into a Jewish ghetto in Manchester, of a Russian speaking mother and Lithuanian German father, proved to be a good beginning. Rebecca, his dentist mother, was a refugee of the first Russian revolution. Morris, his father, anticipating the future, had ventured to Lerwick; there he used selling herrings to find a hospitable community from whence to start afresh. Leslie grew up in an atmosphere of thrift, hard work and, through the British Refugee Council, service to refugees to which his father literally gave his life; the Morris Feinmann Home is a memorial. His premature death, following that of Rebecca, was a powerful formative influence. Leslie Feinmann won a scholarship to the Manchester Grammar School, thence to Manchester University where he graduated in medicine in 1941. After a brief spell as house surgeon he joined the 8th Army in Egypt and served throughout the North African and Italian campaigns; the subsequent tales to his children lost nothing in the telling.

Feinmann returned to Salford as RMO, then registrar to Ronald Lane from whom he acquired an enduring interest in occupational medicine. His first significant paper, which was on diabetic neuropathy (BMJ 1953, 1, 1408), dates from this time. From Manchester Feinmann moved to Newcastle as SHMO and assistant chest physician at the General Hospital and Newcastle West Chest Clinic. He developed a single breath carbon dioxide test of lung mixing, and set up the Hugh-Jones standardized exercise step test, visiting the MRC pneumoconiosis unit to learn the practical details. An application for a Prophit scholarship of the College was almost successful, but talking too much at the interview tipped the balance against him; he therefore lost an experience of research which he was to miss later on.

Instead he went as consultant chest physician to Gateshead, combining treatment of tuberculosis and practical exercise testing with active involvement in the issues of the day. He became chairman, North Region CND, vice chairman, Newcastle North Labour Party, and was not averse to leading a procession of witness or presenting a petition when this seemed appropriate. The emphasis was on measures to better the working man, based on Humanism which had replaced the Judaism he had grown up with.

By now Feinmann’s medical opinion was well regarded, so with eight papers to his name he applied for a consultant post in Newcastle. Sadly, the prejudices aroused by his non-medical activities damaged his chances and he had too much integrity to countenance manoeuverings that might have benefited him. This incident may have been in his mind when, many years later, he gave his presidential address to the North of England Thoracic Society on the subject of ethics; then all who heard him were moved by his sincerity and the depth of his insight.

In 1955 tuberculosis was still quite prevalent but in Gateshead in 1968 it was very much diminished; the workload was less and Feinmann became part-time physician at the Regional Thoracic Centre, Shotley Bridge, with charge of the regional lung function laboratory. Subsequently he found himself with time on his hands and empty beds at his disposal but confronted by much chronic geriatric illness. However, the impulse to alleviate the attendant suffering ran up against the conventions of the times; geriatric medicine remained with the geriatricians. Now in his sixtieth year, Feinmann could honourably have settled for a quiet life. Instead he applied for and secured a consultant post in general medicine, by then vacant for a year, at the Sunderland General Hospital.

His new and mainly younger colleagues watched sceptically as he reorganized the chest department, built up the district lung function laboratory at Ryhope Hospital and played a full part in teaching medical students. Was he now going to reorganize them? In fact he observed and commented but did not advise, and his puckish sense of humour did the rest. The move was both successful and happy. The traditional chest physician had made the adjustment to modem medicine which eluded so many of his contemporaries.

A high proportion of the patients in Sunderland were shipyard workers and amongst them Feinmann diagnosed many cases of emphysema. Was this due to welding fumes? The Boilermakers Union thought so and there was possibly cause for redress. Feinmann secured the agreement of Messrs Austin and Pickersgill to undertake a survey, and promises of help from the Employment Medical Advisory Service (EMAS), many colleagues and the regional statistician. EMAS backed out, but with help from the present writer the study went ahead, albeit on a shoestring. A screening survey was undertaken, followed by exercise and other tests on a selected sample of 200 men. By bad luck the analysis took time and extended into Feinmann’s retirement from the NHS in 1982. To secure continuity he became medical officer (part-time) to the shipyard. Incredibly, and most woundingly, this led to the accusation of self-seeking from the Union, but the misunderstanding was resolved. Subsequent to his death the study continued, but it was the big unfinished business of his life.

Retirement brought time for reflection; the vision of peace on earth and the need for self-sacrifice to achieve it. At this point near catastrophe befell: a cardiac arrest during investigation for abdominal pain. After three days unconscious in coronary care, almost his first words were ‘they made the wrong diagnosis’. The damage was not mortal, but priorities now had to be defined. Before long, accompanied by his wife, Sylvia, he was visiting Russia on behalf of the medical campaign against nuclear weapons and planning a further expedition for which he was elected leader. A former colleague at Sunderland fell ill with cancer and he visited him daily to comfort and support him during the terminal illness.

He wrote about the meaning of life. He was concerned that his children should live adventurously and not accept too readily the apparently secure futures his and Sylvia’s genes and example had secured for them - Mary, now deputy head teacher, Jane, medical journalist, Richard and Charlotte, physician and psychiatrist respectively, Sarah, artist, Mark, clinical psychologist. The first priority was to live life to the full, so both in Newcastle and at his home in Grasmere he daily extended the range of his activities ... one mile on the level, a thousand foot climb, 2000 ft., a swim in Grisedale Tarn, but despite a heatwave the water was icy and precipitated a further arrhythmia ... Now a lovingly built cairn overlooks the spot.

Leslie Feinmann was a remarkable man; enthusiastic but not without self-doubt, totally unselfish and idealistic but with his feet just on the ground, compassionate, not sentimental, a skilful physician and almost everyone’s friend.

JE Cotes

[Brit.med.J., 1983, 287, 768; Lancet, 1983, 2, 637]

(Volume VII, page 185)

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