Lives of the fellows

Thomas Shirley Hele

b.21 October 1881 d.23 January 1953
OBE(1919) BA Cantab(1899) BSc Lond(1903) MB BCh Cantab(1907) DPH Cantab(1920) MD Cantab(1911) MRCS LRCP(1906) MRCP(1935) FRCP(1940)

Thomas Hele was born in Carlisle, the son of Warwick Hele, a well-known local dentist, and Catherine Mary, daughter of John Rigden Mummery. His forefathers had, as the name suggests, come north from Devon, and there was always in him the mixture of the North Country and of the friendly West. He went to Carlisle Grammar School, and then to Sedbergh, where a clumsy, unathletic boy learned to laugh at pain and toughened himself for a life of persistent over-work and cheerful victory over exhaustion.

To the end he concealed a massive, painstaking industry behind a pose of inefficient improvisation, and, in the manner of his generation, his eager intellectual curiosity behind a diffident modesty of his own share in any work. He was in the first class in both parts of the natural sciences tripos, a little to his own bewilderment finding himself, who meant to be a doctor, a scientist, He left Emmanuel College, where his tutor had been Gowland Hopkins, for St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

In London he worked for some time with Archibald Garrod on diseases caused by inborn errors in metabolism. He qualified as a medical officer of health, tried himself out as a house physician at Bristol, began there a life-long attachment to boys’ clubs, and as a result of seeing the after-effects of a serious fire, became an expert in equipping all buildings where he worked with adequate fire escapes and other precautions.

He was brought back to Emmanuel to replace as medical tutor Gowland Hopkins, whose great work for biochemistry was incompatible with the claims of college work, and who was therefore surrendered by Emmanuel to Trinity. Happy to be back in his own college, he cheerfully shouldered an increasing load of what is called administrative work, which included the care of the fast-developing biochemistry laboratory. To it he added service in the Officers Training Corps, for he was one of those who saw the approach of the War, and when it began was for a time on the staff of anemer-gency hospital in Cambridge. From it he escaped to service in the Balkans, in what was perhaps the worst malaria area in the world.

He enjoyed his Army life, though he spoke little of it in later years. When the War ended he returned to a college which, like most of the rest of England, had seen neither what changes the War had brought, nor the need to recognise by salary increase the effect of monetary inflation and the increased maturity of the war generation. There was a reforming commission, which made a serious attempt to hasten the development of the collection of colleges into a modern university, but which overlooked the need for new money and the cost of scientific research. Hele became one of the many victims of such ignorance.

Nevertheless the careers of many of Hele’s pupils proved that he was a magnificent medical educator, not only of the general practitioner, but also of men who furthered medicine by research. He ought to have been helped by an increase in the laboratory staff; instead he had himself to do more and more work, which was recognised when his college made him master in 1935.

The return of the threat of war took him on to committees about the right use of the University in war; committees for ever rediscovering that colleges would make useful war hospitals, a view with which he strongly disagreed. At this time he became unpunctual and occasionally impatient, due to sleeplessness resulting from overwork, the pain of an arthritic hip which made walking difficult, and domestic stress arising from the increasing ill health and early death of his first wife; but he served his turn as vice-chancellor.

By then he was sure that English academics would become as poor as some of his friends in France, and that inadequate means often accounted for their inclination to left-wing politics. As he grew older he became at times scandalously outspoken. He called himself what he was, a radical Tory, equally anxious for change, if it be the right change, as for the preservation of what was worth preserving.

As his lameness ended his delight in walking holidays in the Lake District, he turned to maps to remind himself of past pleasures. He was a passionate antiquary, and although an old-fashioned Protestant, was immensely glad, as master of their former house, to welcome the Dominicans on their return to Cambridge. He was no speaker and was thought by many to lack dignity because he took no pleasure in formality. Perhaps he would have been happier as a country doctor, the friend to everyone, and their counsellor in times of trouble.

In 1914 he married Audrey Muriel Hill, by whom he had two daughters; his second marriage took place in 1942, to Audrey Louise, widow of Frederick Mowbray Davis.

Richard R Trail

[, 1953, 1, 277; Lancet, 1953, 1, 248; Times, 24 Jan. 1953.]

(Volume V, page 186)

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