Lives of the fellows

Wilfrid Fletcher Gaisford

b.6 April 1902 d.24 March 1988
MRCS LRCP(1925) MB BS Lond(1926) MD(1928) MRCP(1928) FRCP(1940) MSc Manch(1951)

Wilfrid Gaisford was born in Somerset into a seafaring family. His father was a captain in the Royal Navy, who served through the first world war, and love of the sea, of sailing and of the west country remained with Wilfrid throughout his life.

After early education at Bristol Grammar School, Wilfrid qualified in medicine from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. During these years he became a distinguished rugby player; starting as a schoolboy, playing for Somerset over 20 years, for Bart’s, the British Lions -touring South Africa in 1924 - and the Harlequins.

It was during resident posts at Bart’s that his interest in paediatrics was aroused, and he became resident medical officer to the East London Children’s Hospital from 1927-31. A year of this time was spent in the USA as assistant resident at the Children’s Hospital, St Louis, and he was then appointed deputy medical superintendent at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool, where he broadened his paediatric experience before his appointment as physician and paediatrician to Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham, in 1934. His research interests were nurtured and encouraged by Sir Leonard Parsons [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.588]. one of the doyens of paediatrics in that era, and he was able to maintain them when he moved to Warwick in 1941 to the new post of consultant paediatrician and physician to Warwickshire County Council. This new appointment gave him scope to place the interests of the sick child before all other considerations. It also brought him into contact with the Czechoslovak hospital sector at Warwick. Applications to follow his father into the Royal Navy had been rejected and he was placed in charge of the resuscitation units at Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham, Warwick and Stratford, where the Czechoslovak Forces had their headquarters. For his interest and encouragement to the Czechoslovak refugees he was awarded the military Medal of Merit by the Czechoslovak government, and he also gained a long and fruitful association with Aron Holzel [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.274] whom he appointed to his staff in Warwick and took with him as his first assistant to Manchester. Holzel later became a professor.

It was with some reluctance that in 1947 Wilfrid Gaisford accepted the invitation to take up the foundation chair of child health in Manchester. He held strongly to the view that children should not be admitted to adult wards but that appropriate nursing and technical facilities should be made available to them in paediatric wards. Having recognized the important contribution of a friendly ambience to the recovery of the sick child, he elected to establish his main professorial paediatric unit at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, Pendlebury, with an academic neonatal unit at St Mary’s Hospital, Whitworth Park, adjacent to the Manchester Royal Infirmary. He encouraged the development of paediatric surgery and neurosurgery, and the appointment of a full-time paediatric surgeon at Pendlebury instead of a series of part-time surgeons. These ideas are now accepted as common practice but were achieved by the considerable efforts or the early postwar paediatricians and foundation professors, such as Gaisford.

With the interest and comfort of the child ever in mind, Gaisford insisted on warm hands for patient examination (a hot water bottle was carried on his own ward rounds) and never more than two attempts at venepuncture were permitted. He was technically highly skilled and would himself undertake procedures after one unsuccessful attempt by a member of his staff. Before oral preparations of penicillin were available, ‘Stoss’ therapy (a single or two high dose injections) was used whenever appropriate, and painful antibacterial injections were prescribed dose by dose. Intrathecal treatment, so dreaded by children with tuberculous meningitis, was abandoned immediately effective oral alternatives became available, and this course was also followed for non-tuberculous meningitis. The strict and limited visiting hours of that time were relaxed on his wards. His frequent ward rounds, much enjoyed for their fun and kindness by his patients, and his ‘greenfingered’ medicine, rendered his wards happy ones in spite of the many longstay conditions with which they were filled.

Although Gaisford's principle commitment was to the sick child and the practice of paediatrics, the preventive aspects of child health were of considerable concern to him. He played a major role in association with Wallgren [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.447] in the introduction of BCG (bacillus-Calmette-Guerin) vaccination in infancy, and with Fanconi and others in infant health and nutrition. He initiated one of the earliest paediatric tumour registries in this country, was actively involved in promoting immunization programmes, and fostered research in the newborn into the problems of immaturity, including neonatal hyperbilirubinaemia and retrolental fibroplasia. He was author, editor and adviser on a number of books and paediatric journals.

One of his greatest contributions was in teaching both undergraduate and postgraduate students, where his wit and enthusiasm, and emphasis on the prime importance of the child’s care and comfort, were an inspiration to many who later followed a paediatric career.

Apart from his prowess on the rugby field, Wilfrid Gaisford’s interests were far ranging and included sailing, which was accessible off the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales and in Cornwall, and gardening - which he continued in the beautiful Cornish home to which he retired, although sadly hampered in his later years by osteoarthritis.

In 1935 he had married Mary Guppy and the hospitality of their family home in Bowden, Cheshire, was legendary among friends, colleagues and paediatricians from many parts of the world. This continued in retirement when former staff and colleagues were frequent visitors. They had one son and four daughters, including a pair of twins, and in spite of having heavy commitments to the University and writing, and being available to visit or advise on sick patients day or night, Wilfrid Gaisford entered fully into his family’s life and interests. Sadly one of his daughters, who became a nurse at Great Ormond Street, died eight years before him.

JM Smellie

[Brit.med.J., 1988,296,1338; The Guardian, 2l Apr 1988]

(Volume VIII, page 173)

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