Lives of the fellows

Geoffrey (Sir) Jefferson

b.10 April 1886 d.29 January 1961
CBE(1943) Kt(1950) MB Lond(1909) MS Lond(1913) Hon MCh Dubl(1947) Hon LLD Glasg(1948) Hon LLD Manch(1957) Hon ScD Cantab(1957) Hon DSc Birm(1960) *FRCP(1947) FRS(1947) Hon FRFPS(1942) Hon FRCSI(1952) Hon FRACS(1957) Hon FACS(1957)

Geoffrey Jefferson was one of the greatest medical personalities of his time, and although his life’s work was devoted to neurosurgery, a specialty which he himself did much to create, he combined the meticulous technical skill of the surgeon with the care and insight of the physician and the wisdom of the philosopher. His knowledge was based upon researches in anatomy and neurology of his own designing, and above all he was an original thinker of rare quality.

He was born in co. Durham, son of Dr Arthur John Jefferson, surgeon and general practitioner, of Rochdale, and his wife, Cecilie James. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University. In 1914 he married Dr Gertrude Flumerfelt, daughter of A. C. Flumerfelt, of Victoria, B.C., who later became a psychiatrist and founded the Manchester Family Welfare Centre. They had two sons, Michael, F.R.C.P., and Anthony, F.R.C.S., and one daughter.

He passed the London M.B. in 1909 with honours and with distinction in surgery, and in 1913 was awarded the University gold medal when he took his mastership in surgery. The years before the war he spent in junior hospital posts and for a time as demonstrator in anatomy at Manchester University with Elliot Smith. He then went out to British Columbia where he developed a surgical practice; but in the winter of 1915 he was invited by Sir Herbert Waterhouse to join the Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petro-grad, and after 1917 served also on a special surgical mission with Brussilov’s army. Later he went to France where he was in charge of a special department for the treatment of gun-shot wounds of the head.

After the war the Royal College of Surgeons gave him special facilities to work on the material which he had gathered from his war experience, and in this he received assistance from Sir Arthur Keith and from the Medical Research Council. He became assistant surgeon to the Salford Royal Hospital in 1919, and visiting surgeon to a hospital for head injuries under the Ministry of Pensions, where he continued his war-time observations.

By 1922, when he applied unsuccessfully for the post of honorary assistant surgeon at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, he had already visited many important surgical centres, especially those dealing with neurological surgery, in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Stockholm and Russia, and was an honorary life member of the Surgical Society of Piragov, the chief Russian surgical society. He had made original observations on the anatomy of the nervous system, on the localisation of cerebral tumours and on perfecting methods of operative approach, as well as on injuries to the nervous system and on a number of general surgical subjects. His application gives references to twenty-two papers, ten of them neurological. These were Jefferson's achievements by the age of thirty-six.

His reputation soon became international, and he continued to write papers based on his original observations and his now greatly increased experience of neurosurgery. He was largely responsible for founding the Society of British Neurological Surgeons and was its president and an officer for many years. In 1926 the Manchester Royal Infirmary provided a small neurological department for him, and in 1933 he was invited to join the surgical staff of the National Hospital, Queen Square, London, where he operated once a fortnight. In 1939 Manchester University created for him the chair of neurosurgery, and in 1950 a fully equipped neurosurgical unit was opened at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, a year before Jefferson’s retirement.

During the Second World War Jefferson was consultant neurosurgical adviser to the Ministries of Health and of Pensions, and secured the establishment throughout the country of neurosurgical centres, his visits to which were an inspiration to all who worked in them. He was much in demand as a lecturer, both in this country and abroad, especially in the U.S.A. and Canada. He received a large number of honorary degrees and was elected an honorary fellow of many foreign medical societies. He was knighted in 1950. He became a member of the Medical Research Council in 1951 and first chairman of its Clinical Research Board. His main publications on neurosurgical and philosophical themes were republished in 1960 under the title Selected papers. His main professional interests were in cerebral tumour, pituitary disease, intracranial aneurysm, and disturbances of consciousness as a result of head injury.

It was legendary that ‘Jeff’ (as he was always called) took no heed of the passage of time. His unpunctuality could be exasperating, but it was invariably forgiven, for his presence was always worthwhile, whether it was in the operating theatre or in conversation round a dinner table. He was never pompous, aloof or unapproachable, and spoke in the same calm, leisurely way in which he did his work. Everyone listened because he never said anything that was not worth hearing and he never said it as anyone else would have said it. He had an extraordinary genius for giving a verbal picture of a person or a situation with the greatest economy of phrase.

While he gave the impression of having no doubts about his ability he had the true humility of a philosopher conscious of the limitations of knowledge.

Lady Jefferson, known always as ‘Trude’ or ‘Trudy’, was a wonderful companion for him as she combined a seriousness of purpose, based on deep religious conviction, with great natural charm and imperturbability, and did her best to protect him from taking on too many tasks, especially in the later years when he suffered from a severe diverticulitis and periodic anginal pain.

Richard R Trail

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1961, 7, 127-35 (p), bibl.; Brit. J. Surg., 1961, 48, 585-8 (p);, 1961, 1, 365-7 (p), 435-6, 512-13; Canad. med. Ass. J., 1961, 84, 674-5; Guardian, 30 Jan. 1961 (p); Lancet, 1961, 1, 288-9 (p), 348; Times, 30 Jan., 2 Feb. 1961. Port., by Sir Gerald Kelly at the Royal College of Surgeons.]

(Volume V, page 213)

<< Back to List