Lives of the fellows

John Foster Gaskell

b.8 September 1878 d.11 September 1960
MB BCh Cantab(1907) DPH Cantab(1920) MD Cantab(1911) MRCP(1908) FRCP(1914)

John Foster Gaskell was born in Cambridge and lived the greater part of his life in the family home on the Gogmagog Hills. He was the son of W. H. Gaskell, F.R.S., a distinguished Cambridge physiologist, and was educated at Marlborough, Caius College, Cambridge, and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He was house physician at Bart’s and in 1911 was elected to the Beit memorial research fellowship at Cambridge where the physiology school was active under Langley and W. H. Gaskell. Some valuable contributions had been made there to the physiology of the adrenals and the autonomic nervous system, and for a time it seemed that he might follow in his father’s steps. Shortly before the war, however, he was elected demonstrator of pathology at Leeds University, and at its outbreak he joined the R.A.M.C, and served with the 1st Eastern General Hospital, Cambridge, and later in Salonika.

On his return to Cambridge in 1920 he was elected assistant physician and pathologist to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, a dual role which he held until his retirement from the post of senior physician in 1946. After his appointment as pathologist at Leeds and clinical and pathological experience in the R.A.M.C., his interests had inclined more and more to the pathological aspects of medicine. In Salonika he had helped to build up a much needed pathological service; his book, Cerebrospinal fever, written jointly with Michael Foster in 1916, is perhaps the best known of his works. During this period he also published papers on malignant malaria (Quart. J. Med., 1919-20, 13, 381-426), and blackwater fever in Macedonia (Brit. med. J., 1920, 2, 122-3), and immediately after the war he continued his experimental study of pneumococcal infections in which he attempted to correlate virulence with different types of pathological lesion. These were published in a series of papers (J. Path. Bact.) between 1921 and 1925, and his results were summarised in the Bradshaw lecture on the pathology of pneumonia at the College in 1927. Although his views were not generally accepted in toto they contained a sound core of accurate observations which has stood the test of time.

At Addenbrooke’s he built up the pathological services from almost nothing. As a clinician he was careful, sound and sympathetic, and the combination made an important contribution to the development of the Hospital at that period. He had no need to engage in private practice and was thus able, by devoting all his energies to the Hospital, to introduce academic methods into clinical work—much needed at that time. His last communication to the Association of Physicians was a description of the changes in the liver in a fatal case of epidemic catarrhal jaundice during a large outbreak in a village near Cambridge (J. Path. Bact., 1933, 36, 257-62).

Gaskell was essentially a countryman who loved his garden and his beautiful home on the ‘Gogs’. He was reserved with a quiet kindliness. He liked young people, and many young doctors and students of the twenties and thirties remembered the tennis parties at his home. He was conservative, too, and had not much use for typewriters or motor cars—indeed he never progressed beyond his motor bicycle. At times the same dislike of ‘new fangled’ ideas emerged in his work. It often seems surprising that he did little original work after the early thirties. The explanation probably lies in the double tragedy which smote him in the late twenties, when his only son died suddenly and unexpectedly and his wife followed two years later after an obscure illness.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1960, 2, 950; J.Path.Bact., 1961, 82, 537-41 (p), bibl.; Lancet, 1960, 2, 711-12; Times, 12 Sept. 1960.]

(Volume V, page 145)

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