Lives of the fellows

Francis Edmund Higgins

b.3 November 1924 d.26 December 1985
BA Loyola College,Canada(1944) MRCS LRCP(1951) MB ChB Birm(1951) MRCP(1953) FRCP(1973)

Francis (Frank) Higgins was born in Derby, into a medical family. Both his parents were doctors, and his mother Mary Alice, née Gallagher, had been the first woman medical graduate of Queen’s University Belfast. His early education was spent at Stoneyhurst College, but at the outbreak of war - when he was 15 - he was evacuated to Canada. At first he lived in Newfoundland but later moved to Montreal, where he studied at Loyola College. He graduated in 1944 in economics and philosophy and, being a staunch Catholic, considered life in the priesthood. However, he was drafted into the armed forces and spent the next two years in the Royal Canadian Infantry Corps, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. On demobilization he took up teaching posts, and did some broadcasting, but on his return to England he decided to take up the study of medicine at Birmingham University.

Despite his lack of a scientific background, he had a brilliant undergraduate medical career, being awarded prizes throughout the course, the culmination being the Arthur Foxwell memorial prize in medicine in 1951. At this time he developed his interest in amateur dramatics and light opera, being a founder member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. He continued to have a pleasing tenor voice until an exploratory neck operation left him with a vocal cord palsy. His sister had qualified as a doctor, at Birmingham, a year before Frank and she worked for some time as an anaesthetist.

After graduation in 1951 he was house physician to Sir Arthur Peregrine Thomson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.575] at Birmingham General Hospital and went on to hold other junior medical posts in Birmingham. He obtained his membership of the College in 1953, and in September 1955 he was appointed senior medical registrar to the professorial medical unit at the General Infirmary at Leeds.

Frank spent 1958 as a research fellow at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, USA, in endocrinology and gastroenterology, and then returned to Leeds to spend a further three years as the tutor in medicine. Although his commitment to research was not great, he was an excellent teacher and clinician, able to put complex matters in a simple way, with an encyclopaedic memory and always very well read. His interest in diabetes had begun with his association with John Malins in Birmingham, and in Leeds was fostered by Ronald Tunbridge, later Sir Ronald (q.v.).

Frank was appointed to the Huddersfield group of hospitals in 1961, having married one of his students, Elizabeth (Liz) Rowe, six months previously. He was one of two physicians in Huddersfield and by hard work, good medicine and excellent teaching, his impact on Huddersfield medicine was extremely beneficial and widely recognized by colleagues everywhere. The hospitals in Huddersfield were old and he soon became involved in the design and planning of the new Huddersfield Royal Infirmary which later became the District General Hospital.

Frank built up a vigorous and renowned diabetic clinic with strong community nursing links - a relatively new idea at the time. He served on the children’s and medical advisory committees of the British Diabetic Association as well as the hospital management committee locally, and many regional committees; the last being as chairman of the regional working party on endocrinology and diabetes.

Frank Higgins was the epitome of what is best in a district general hospital physician. He was extremely hard working, conscientious, fiercely independent, knowledgeable and well read, an excellent bedside teacher and staunch ally. He attracted clinical students from all over England and Ireland, and his junior medical staff normally were successful in examinations. He did little research himself and did not publish widely once he was in Huddersfield, donating all his energy to building up the standards of medical care. He occasionally lost his temper, which could be impressive, but it was short lived. His square frame, plethoric face and friendly, jocular greeting were always welcome at meetings which he often attended with his wife, who helped him in the diabetic clinic. Of his four children, only Sarah, his youngest daughter, followed him into medicine, becoming an undergraduate at the Sheffield medical school.

His later years were dogged by ill health, brought on by his incessant hard work, and he took early retirement but died within a few months. There is little doubt that the high standard of medical care in Huddersfield was due, in no small way, to his clinical expertise, good management and teaching.

JK Wales
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1986,292,704; Lancet, 1986,1,569]

(Volume VIII, page 224)

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