Lives of the fellows

Roger William Gilliatt

b.30 July 1922 d.19 September 1991
MC(1942) BA MA Oxon(1949) BM BCh Lond(1949) MRCP(1951) DM(1955) FRCP(1961)

Roger Gilliatt was born into a distinguished medical family. His father, Sir William Gilliatt, became president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and of the Royal Society of Medicine. His mother, also a doctor, came from a family of Viennese origin whose lineage traces back to a common ancestry with Schubert; whose music Roger loved as he did that of other Viennese masters.

Roger was educated at Rugby and in 1940 went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he later gained first class honours in the natural sciences just six months after returning from war service. In 1942 he had enlisted in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His service involved going deep behind enemy lines and he was twice mentioned in despatches. For another such foray he was awarded the Military Cross.

After demobilization he made rapid progress to appointments, becoming consultant at the Middlesex Hospital (his undergraduate school) and at the National Hospital, Queen Square; just six years after qualifying. In the first few years after his appointments, in addition to his clinical work in the two hospitals and his own practice, he devoted himself to electromyography and was one of those who laid the foundations of what soon became an indispensible part of neurological investigation. He maintained his interest in diseases of the peripheral nervous system throughout his career.

His particular interests were concentrated on the mechanisms of mechanical and toxic damage to peripheral nerve. He also encouraged and supported the interest of others in a wide range of diseases of muscle, brain and spinal cord. Although the techniques he used himself remained those which he had had a hand in developing he actively encouraged the introduction of new approaches, such as magnetic resonance imaging, which promised to illuminate hitherto intractable problems in neurology.

In his last decade at Queen Square he returned to an earlier interest in transient disorders of consciousness and established the flourishing clinical and investigative epilepsy service.

In 1962 he was appointed the first professor of clinical neurology at the Institute of Neurology. At that time, Queen Square was poorly placed to contribute to the rapid developments in neurology taking place elsewhere. Its strength was in the very high standard of clinical practice inherited from the great figures of the 1930s, but its weakness was that its commitment to laboratory research was small and diminishing. The early years were not easy, but Roger deployed his formidable professional and administrative skills and during the next 20 years the growth of the Institute was remarkable.

His guiding principle was that trainees in neurology should be in a position to take a problem identified during the course of their day-to-day care of patients to the laboratory, where it could be investigated rigorously, and then to take back the fruits of their research to the clinic for the improved management of patients. Achievement of this aim required laboratory space and the presence of first class clinical and basic scientists, whose work would be complementary.

His leadership, coupled with the growing and imaginative support of a succession of deans and chairmen of the academic board, transformed the Institute into the present large establishment with its pre-eminent international reputation. Crucial to this success was the quality of the individuals who came to work at Queen Square. Roger Gilliatt had an enviable capacity to recognize academic potential in young people and a determination to support in myriad ways, often not visible, those who were fulfilling their promise.

Young neurologists from all over the world came to his department and many went on to become leading figures in their own countries and internationally. At the time of his death, Roger had had a hand in training most of the professors of clinical neurology in the UK. All who worked with him were marked by his approach. He exacted the highest standards both in the clinic and in the laboratory, and the consequences of falling short of his expectations could be disastrous.

He had a waspish tongue and as C J Earl observed: ‘Where he felt strongly, he found peaceful disagreement difficult and at times it almost seemed as if views in opposition to his own were to be regarded as a challenge to battle rather than a challenge to his substantial powers of gentle persuasion.’ Yet his acerbity was complemented by a finely developed sense of irony, not least in relation to himself, and it was softened - for those who knew him well - by a delightful sense of humour. His kindness to those who needed help was boundless.

He was a generous host and a delightful guest. His wide reading of history, especially military history, and also of literature made him a valued dinner companion. It had been his hope to write, in retirement, a book on the characters in Trollope. When he retired from Queen Square he went to the National Institutes of Health in Bethseda, USA, where he was able to spend more time in the laboratory than he had done for many years. There he found a ready availability of funds to purchase the latest equipment, on a scale he had never known, and he settled into professional and personal life in Washington with great enthusiasm and manifest satisfaction.

Roger Gilliatt was a complex character: a man of uncompromizing standards, he was capable of great affection. He was above all a man who cared, and cared deeply, about the standards of his hospital and institute, about the standards of his profession, about his subject and how his students contributed to it, about the happiness and welfare of his friends and particularly of those whom he loved. He had a powerful sense of historical continuity and his place in the history of Queen Square, and in neurology in this country, is secure. He was married twice. First to Penelope Conner in 1954; the marriage was dissolved. In 1963 he married Mary Green and they had a son and two daughters.

W I McDonald

[The Independent, 23 Aug 1991; The Times, 21 August 1991]

(Volume IX, page 195)

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