Lives of the fellows

Charles Edward Lewis Freer

b.4 July 1944 d.11 December 1996
MB BS Lond( 1967) MRCS LRCP(1967) MRCP(1971) FRCR(1980) FRCP(1996)

A consultant in Cambridge, Charles Freer was at the forefront of developments in neuroradiology. His father was a radiologist at Leicester and that may well have influenced his initial decision to study medicine. Educated at Radley, where he was a skilled gymnast, he entered Guy’s Hospital Medical School in 1963. His fellow medical students quickly appreciated his encyclopaedic mind. This ability to marshal facts was to stand him in great stead in later years (he never needed a diary and never missed an appointment). As a medical student it ensured that he sailed through all examinations with minimal fuss. It also enabled him to help some of his less able colleagues. He excelled at skiing and captained the London University team. Bridge was another and more time consuming hobby. His phenomenal memory gave him a huge advantage. But of all his achievements as a student, meeting and subsequently marrying Jan in 1967 was by far the most important.

During his early career in medicine he gained experience in neurology and quickly obtained the MRCP exam. Then came difficult career choices. He started radiological training, perhaps influenced by his father’s career, perhaps because of his interest in photography. However, during his radiological training he also pursued general practice for a while. Seeking further intellectual challenges he decided to combine his radiological and neurological expertise and returned to train in neuroradiology at Oxford and Manchester. At Manchester he had the good fortune to experience Ian Isherwood’s excellent training at the time that computerized tomography (CT) was making such impressive strides within the neurosciences.

This training led to his appointment in 1984 as a consultant neuroradiologist to Addenbrooke’s Hospital to join Desmond Hawkins, replacing Hugh Holland [q.v.]. Charles and Desmond provided a very strong, if hard pressed, two man neuroradiology service to the rapidly evolving neurological and neurosurgical departments in Cambridge. Later Desmond Hawkins was replaced by Nagui Antoun and for a decade Charles and Nagui ran the ship. During this period the demands on neuroradiology increased exponentially with CT becoming a routine procedure. Charles was also one of the driving forces in developing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in Cambridge and with his guidance neuroradiological MRI quickly became mainstream. Charles was also at the forefront of developments in interventional neuroradiology. Charles accommodated all these developments effortlessly in his stride. He was well ahead in management skills and was a glutton for work, commonly working in the hospital for twelve or more hours a day and nearly every Saturday.

His love of computing was a great bonus. It meant that the MRI unit had a computer database long before the hospital had its own information support system. And he realized the benefits of computer applications in many aspects of his work. As well as understanding the theory of computing, he could also fix hardware. Thus it was common to find him in the hospital on a Sunday soldering in new boards or parts to the various machines. And if one did not catch him at it, his hard work was revealed by the operational computer on Monday morning and the give-away aroma of cigarettes!

He published relatively little, but some of his ideas were innovative - witness his development of ultrasound of the spinal cord. It was as a teacher that he excelled. His weekly lunchtime tutorials around the CT monitor attracted standing room only. And all the registrars passing through the East Anglian training programme felt well prepared, not only for various examination hurdles, but also for subsequent life as a consultant radiologist.

Charles was an introvert and the full extent of his intellect was not always appreciated by his academic colleagues, especially when more and more such posts were created within the neurosciences with little radiological support. Charles passionately believed in the NHS and expected everyone else to give it their undivided attention. Thus he did not pursue private practice. Indeed all the revenue from his considerable private MRI referrals was channelled so that Addenbrooke’s now has one of the best equipped MRI units in the country.

Charles was very much a family man. Time with Jan and his two children (Rachel and Stephen) was very precious. He spent much of his leave taking his daughter to and from ballet school in his car (he had a passion for Triumph and Rover cars). In the last few weeks, following the sudden and devastating diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic carcinoma, his family gave him great comfort.

Adrian K Dixon

[, 1997,314,1050]

(Volume X, page 153)

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