Lives of the fellows

Paul Forgacs

b.12 Feb 1914 d.12 Aug 1992
MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BS Lond(1939) MRCP(1943) MD(1944) FRCP(1968)

Paul Forgacs was born in Budapest, Hungary, in a family with no particular medical connections. His first love was music and he wished to study the piano; as the music school had no vacancy in piano studies he took up the flute - a fortunate choice as things turned out. In the 1930s a wealthy aunt, said to be a diva at the Vienna State Opera, subsidized the medical education of both Paul and his brother Andre, later a psychiatrist in the USA, and her own son, George, who subsequently became a general practitioner in Plymouth.

Paul first started his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris but found it unsuitable and transferred to Guy’s Hospital medical school in London, where he graduated and held a series of house appointments. After obtaining his membership of the College he took up a house job at the Brompton Hospital. His future may not have been polarized at that time but it is interesting to note that there was then no chemotherapy for tuberculosis - which was the Brompton’s main interest - and objective lung function tests were practically non-existent.

Paul decided that he needed some broader experience and took registrar posts at Guy’s in general medicine and cardiology. In 1945 he joined the RAMC and quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in charge of a medical division, serving at home and in Italy until 1947. During this time he applied for British naturalization, which was granted without much delay. On demobilization he returned to Guy’s as a senior registrar and launched full-time into respiratory work. In 1950 he married Eileen Mitchell, a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital, and they had two sons.

He became consultant in diseases of the chest to the SE Metropolitan Hospital Board and as superintendent of Kettlewell Sanatorium, where chemotherapy had recently been introduced, he was able to initiate an accelerated programme of treatment and discharge for his patients which earned him much credit. He was a staunch advocate of full-time work in the NHS and remained so. Recognizing some deficiency in his work, particularly in the objective control and measurement of respiratory disease, he eventually persuaded the regional hospital board of that time to let him set up a laboratory for respiratory function testing. This was first at Dartford and later at Brook Hospital.

For the rest of his professional career he was based at the Brook, as chest physician and clinical tutor, later postgraduate dean. A smallish man, with a sparkling sense of humour and great charm, he could clearly see the compromises necessary for committee work and had a gift for cutting through to the core of a debate, with a clarity which was much envied and which showed also in his teaching style. He encouraged students to arrive at their own conclusions by carefully planting clues, logical reasoning, and often a healthy disregard for received wisdom.

This sceptical attitude permeated his writings as well and acted as a catalyst to thought, which stimulated and supported other workers at the Brook in original respiratory research. A prolific writer on respiratory disease, his major work was on the lung sounds as heard on auscultation. Laennec described these but had not assigned acceptable causes. Paul applied physiological principles derived basically from his knowledge of wind instruments -such as the flute - and came up with definitive explanations of the various adventitious sounds.

Crackles and wheezes replaced rales, crepitations and bronchi. His findings were published in Lung Sounds, London, Baillière Tindall, 1978, which became obligatory reading in chest centres throughout the world. He was invited to lecture on the subject in many different countries and, being multilingual, was a popular and influential speaker.

Music was one of his particular interests outside medicine. He played the piano well and other keyboard instruments - the clavichord appealed to him with its quietness and delicacy - and whenever possible he practised several hours a day. Paul Forgacs was a family man and his wife Eileen was a perfect companion who enjoyed taking part in his many interests - social, musical and travel. He was very proud of his two sons; Ian a consultant at King’s College Hospital and now a Fellow of the College, and David a Cambridge professor in Italian Literature.

W E Mahon

[Brit.med.J., 1992,305,1012]

(Volume IX, page 175)

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