Lives of the fellows

David Caton Flenley

b.19 March 1933 d.27 March 1989
BSc(1954) MB ChB Edin(1957) MRCPE(1962) PhD(1967) MRCP(1965) FRCPE(1970) FRCP(1972)

David Flenley was professor of respiratory medicine in the University of Edinburgh. He was born and bred m Lancashire, where his father was a general practitioner, but he lived in Edinburgh from his student days until his untimely death at the age of 56.

After a brilliant undergraduate career and resident posts at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, he was called on to do his National Service in the RAMC. He found the restrictions of Army life irksome and was glad to get out and back to academic medicine. From that time on, with the exception of an MRC travelling fellowship in San Francisco, USA, and Montreal, Canada, he spent all his time in the department of medicine, University of Edinburgh, where he was encouraged by Kenneth Donald to continue research into chronic bronchitis, which he made his special interest.

In 1969 he was appointed senior lecturer and honorary consultant physician and rapidly expanded the respiratory disease research of the department, particularly with regard to the pathophysiology of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and treatment with long term oxygen. He became one of the foremost British researchers in this field and acquired a considerable national and international reputation. In 1978, on the retirement of Sir John Crofton, he succeeded to the chair of respiratory medicine in the University. This involved moving his base from his beloved Royal Infirmary to the City Hospital but, with characteristic vigour and honesty, he decided that if he had to move there would be no regrets and he set out to make his department the best in Britain. With his reputation, energy and persuasive powers, he attracted considerable support with enabled him to set up the Rayne Laboratories to continue his research. He also developed an interest in sleep apnoea and many other related topics in respiratory disease.

Flenley was a prolific author of papers and books and in great demand as a teacher both in Edinburgh and all over the world. His lectures and rounds were very popular with both students and postgraduates, although at times the discussion could be very heated. In 1982 he was elected president of the European Society of Pneumology. For many years he was on the editorial board of Clinical Science and later chairman of the board. He was a classic ‘Type A’ personality, a hard-driving workaholic who demanded the highest standards from himself, his colleagues, junior staff and students.

He was not prepared to accept conventional dogma and would fearlessly - sometimes one would say recklessly - challenge the views of others. This practice extended outside the field of medicine and he would readily debate any topic on which he had a view so that one had to be fairly tough and thick-skinned to get involved in a discussion with him. However, if proved wrong, which was not often, he would honestly admit his error. Life with Flenley as a colleague was never dull.

He married Hilary Wingate in 1959 and they had two children, William and Claire. Social functions at their home were a delight, with vigorous but good humoured banter flying back and forth and usually ending with a nip or two of his favourite malt whisky. His death came swiftly from a subarachnoid haemorrhage and perhaps it was merciful that he did not survive with physical and intellectual disability which would have been unbearable for such a brilliant and mercurial man. Although a Lancastrian by birth, a fact of which he remained proud, he made Edinburgh - and Scotland - his home and fiercely upheld and enhanced the reputation of Edinburgh medicine.

E Housley

[Brit.med.J., 1969,298,1092-3; Times, 1 Apr 1969;The Guardian, 4 Apr 1969]

(Volume IX, page 173)

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