Lives of the fellows

Joseph Tegart Lewis

b.2 September 1897 d.8 October 1969
MB BCh BAO Belf(1921) MD(1924) MRCP(1927) FRCP(1936)

Joseph Tegart Lewis was born in Belfast, the son of Joseph Lewis, an engineer, and of Mary Jane Tegart Lewis, who came of farming stock. He was educated at Campbell College, Belfast (1909-16), and at the Queen’s University, Belfast (1916-21), graduating MB, BCh, BAO with first class honours in medicine, surgery, operative surgery and midwifery. He spent a year then as house physician and house surgeon respectively at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, and in 1922 was appointed resident pathologist, which post he held for two years until he became demonstrator in physiology in the Dunville Department at the University under Professor Tom and Dr. John Milroy. He studied the effects on tissue metabolism brought about by insulin in the treatment of diabetes mellitus, and for his MD thesis on the subject he was awarded a Gold Medal. Thereafter he was appointed assistant to the Professor of Medicine (W.W.D. Thomson), continued his laboratory work and set up in private consultant practice in the city.

In 1924 he was appointed medical registrar at the Royal Victoria Hospital and held clinical teaching posts until 1929, when, on the retirement of J.E. Mcllwaine he was elected to the honorary visiting staff of the hospital as assistant physician. In 1928 he was appointed bacteriologist to the Belfast Union Infirmary (now Belfast City Hospital), where he continued to hold office until his retirement in 1963.

Lewis was elected President in 1934 of the Belfast Medical Students’ Association and in 1936 a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (Member 1927). In 1939, at the age of forty-two years, he could very well have ignored the outbreak of hostilities in Europe but he had not served in the first world war in which a brother had been severely wounded, and felt the urge strongly to volunteer for service with the army, where and in what capacity his services would be of most use. Commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel, RAMC in 1940 and placed in command of the Medical Division of No. 25 General Hospital, he was posted to the Middle East and saw service there in the field, until the fall of Tobruk, where as a member of the beleaguered garrison he was taken prisoner-of-war. At first held in captivity at Benghazi, then at Bari, and finally near Florence in Italy, he suffered considerable hardships, including personal suffering from a renal calculus, before he was exchanged and repatriated with a number of other prisoners-of-war in May 1943.

One would have thought that he had done enough but after appropriate leave he resumed his military duties and took part in the landing in Normandy, campaigning with his hospital through France into Germany. For his part in this campaign he received a mention in despatches and had the sad privilege of being the first British medical officer to set foot in the notorious Belsen concentration camp, ten days before the end of the war in 1945.

On his return to Belfast he took up private consulting practice from his home at 25 College Gardens and in 1950, after the death of his old chief and beloved friend, Sir William W.D. Thomson, he took charge of his wards at the hospital. He became chairman of the medical staff in 1954-56. Until his retirement in 1963, upon reaching the age limit he devoted more and more time to his work at the hospital and to its integration into the changing conditions brought about by the introduction of the National Health Service, in relation to which he displayed concern that the old image of the Royal as a teaching hospital should be preserved.

Throughout his life "Ted" was regarded with deep affection by all those who came in contact with him, whether patients, colleagues at the hospitals in which he worked, or general practitioners. As a clinical teacher he was incisive, and practical in his orientation, stressing in particular the importance of clinical pathology to the students, conveying to them his zest for accuracy even in such apparently trivial matters as urine testing. And his busy, active figure, moving rapidly from one task to the next, his ready smile and short bursts of laughter at anything which tickled his sense of humour, as well as the explosive way he could react to a proposition which he thought as futile, earned for him an endearing reputation in the medical school and hospital.

By nature he was shy, modest, and shunned publicity. As a youth he had been awarded an entrance scholarship into Campbell College, had been elected a prefect and won an entrance scholarship into the university. Few students indeed who have passed through the Belfast Medical School had a more distinguished academic record, his undoubted intellectual gifts and early maturity placing him well in advance of his fellows. He won the Adami Medal in his third year for pathology, and in 1920 and 1921, respectively, won the Coulter Scholarship and the McQuitty Memorial Prize at the Royal. Always reticent, however, to express his own views, he published little, although he was a regular and enthusiastic attender at the meetings of the Association of Physicians to which he was elected in 1931. He undertook part editorship of Aids to Medical Treatment (Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1931) and contributed articles on subjects of bacteriological interest on occasion to the British Medical Journal and the Ulster Medical Journal, one of these drawing attention to the important diagnostic value of low cerebrospinal fluid sugar levels in the diagnosis of tuberculous meningitis. One of the most moving addresses ever given before the Ulster Medical Society was his account of conditions in the Belsen camp, but, unfortunately, caring little as he did for publicity, the lecture was never published.

In 1924 he married Dr. Ida May Kirker, daughter of a linen merchant in Banbridge, who survived him as did his two daughters. After his retirement in 1963 he lived for some years at Malone Hill Park, Belfast when he was honorary consultant in medicine to the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority. But his health was already declining and for over a year before his death he lay in great bodily distress following a cerebral thrombosis, right hemiplegia, and persistent expressive aphasia, which must have been the most severe trial he had ever been called upon to face in his long life of service as a doctor.

RS Allison

[Belfast Telegraph, 10 Oct 1969; Belfast Newsletter, 14 Oct 1969]

(Volume VI, page 289)

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