Lives of the fellows

Reginald Hilton

b.7 May 1895 d.13 February 1969
MB BChir Cantab(1922) MRCP(1923) MA MD(1930) FRCP(1931)

Reginald Hilton was born in Southport, Lancs, the son of Philip Hilton, a business man, and of Bertha (née Jones). He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School, Crosby, and at Cambridge, where he entered Corpus Christi College with a musical scholarship. He changed to medicine and went to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital with a scholarship and won the gold medal for clinical medicine.

He then embarked on a period of physiological research, his interests being in circulation and the blood gases in lung diseases. This work took him both to Paris and Frankfurt where he became fluent in French and German. He returned to England, working for a year with Starling at UCH, and then in 1926 went back to Bart’s in Fraser’s medical unit, where he became assistant physician and assistant director of the Unit. He was elected Fellow of the College in 1931 and was Assistant Registrar from 1938 to 1942. He was appointed assistant physician to St. Thomas’s Hospital in 1934, when it was unusual for a London teaching hospital to accept anyone from another school for such an important post.

He continued his interest in music throughout life, playing the violin in quartets with other amateurs or professionals. He was interested in the visual arts and no mean landscape painter himself. His interests in literature and ideas were furthered by his command of languages and he was a man of wide culture. His conversation astonished by its wide range, wit and flight of ideas. In 1925 he married Gwendoline, daughter of M.J.M. Hill, professor of mathematics at UCL and Vice-chancellor. She became a much respected radiotherapist at UCH.

With this run up it was expected that his career would be a success, but sadly it ended in disappointment. Though appointed by St. Thomas’s for his research work, the hospital had no laboratory facilities to offer and he had not the constancy and determination to create them. His diagnoses were not confirmed often enough to command the respect of his houseman. Private practice was a failure because patients want serious concern, not wit and paradox. Nor were the general practitioners pleased with the difficulty in getting him to a consultation, for he often gave the impression of being inextricably engaged with someone else. His practice degenerated into routine insurance examinations, which could not have given him any satisfaction. Despite being sociable and friendly, he lacked the capacity to become one of a group and his unusual mind set him further apart from his colleagues. He never became part of St. Thomas’s, gradually giving up the struggle and retiring three years before his time, abandoning also all other medical activities.

His great success was his public teaching rounds, which were conducted with such verve and panache that they attracted a large following of students, despite the objection of some that they lacked seriousness. It came as a surprise and with some feeling of humiliation to his more successful colleagues when they learned how often the enduring memory of the old students was of Reggie and no one else. His brilliance was slowly dimmed by Parkinson’s disease and he died at 73 in 1969. In his will he left £400,000, which was a large sum in those days. This was made on the stock exchange, thereby revealing another talent of which his colleagues were not aware, and which proved to be of little use to him.

J Bishop Harman

[Lancet, 1969, 1, 473, 1165]

(Volume VI, page 242)

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