Lives of the fellows

John Richard Anthony Mitchell

b.24 October 1928 d.22 March 1991
BSc Manch(1950) MB ChB(1953) MRCP(1955) DPhil Oxon(1963) MA(1965) MD(1965) FRCP(1969)

Tony Mitchell was educated at Morecambe Grammar School and Manchester University where he took first class honours in physiology, undertaking his clinical studies at Manchester Royal Infirmary. He was born in Shipley, Yorkshire, where his father Richard Newton Mitchell was a bank cashier. His mother Elizabeth, née Bell, was the daughter of John William Bell, a dock foreman.

In 1954 he married Muriel Joyce, daughter of John Knight Gibbon, a marine engineer, and they had two sons and two daughters.

After junior hospital posts in Manchester, his two years compulsory National Service, 1955-57, were spent in the RAMC as a medical specialist. He was then appointed registrar to Sir George Pickering [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.464] in Oxford. This was followed by an MRC research fellowship and he obtained a DPhil under the supervision of Gwyn Macfarlane [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.303]. He subsequently became first assistant to Sir George Pickering and gained a gold medal for his MD thesis in 1965. When the Nottingham medical school was established in 1968 Tony Mitchell became its first clinical professor.

Tony moved to Nottingham at a time when that city was extremely poorly provided with medical facilities. The new teaching hospital, later to be called Queen’s Medical Centre, was not much more than a sketch on the back of an envelope and Tony played a major role in its design and eventual commissioning. He first had to set up a temporary department in the old General Hospital at Nottingham and, as well as establishing academic medicine, he had to encourage and cajole the regional health authority to provide the funds to improve the standards of care for ‘ordinary’ patients. When he was appointed there were few consultants in Nottingham, there were no senior registrars in medicine, and not a single registrar had membership of the College.

Tony’s contribution to Nottingham in the early days was without doubt his greatest achievement. He believed strongly that a medical school should not be an ivory tower but should carry a full clinical load and serve the medical needs of the community. He established the interdependence of research, teaching and service that has become Nottingham's hallmark. The medical school's present popularity with students and junior staff, and its reputation as a centre of medical and scientific excellence, depend to a large extent on the system and attitudes of which he was the major architect.

Tony Mitchell had an uncanny and enviable ability to ask simple questions that cut through loose argument, be it academic, clinical or political. His initial contribution to the study of cardiac disease was based on a desire to look afresh at the relation between coronary disease and myocardial infarction and this led to an interest in platelets in the early days of the renaissance of thrombosis. His interests moved to epidemiology, clinical trials and, finally, stroke - and he always doubted the things perceived by others as obvious. His demand that theories should be subjected to rigorous trial and proof - for example, the relations between blood cholesterol concentrations and myocardial infarction - led him to conflicts with the establishment that he relished. Regarded by some as being iconoclastic he much appreciated once being called ‘the abominable no-man'.

Tony’s cheerful antipathy to authority probably stemmed from his national service. He was never afraid to argue his point and he could be devastating in committee. He was a splendid raconteur and his abilities as a speaker and chairman were seen at their best when he was president of the Association of Physicians at its Nottingham meeting. He was visiting professor to several foreign universities, but never refused an invitation to talk at a postgraduate centre however small the audience might be. There can be few lecturers as expert as he was at displaying a rigorous analysis of observations and ‘facts’ under a title such as ‘Should every cow carry a government health warning?’. He was a highly entertaining lecturer whatever his subject and a talk on canals entitled ‘Rivers that flow uphill’ was much in demand by narrow boat enthusiasts like himself, by local historians, and also by conservation groups.

Perhaps one of the last in the great tradition of general physicians who were trained before the days of narrow specialization, he was awarded the Moxon medal by the RCP in 1990. Before his retirement he said - only six months before his death - that the only thing he would really miss would be contact with his patients. He took immense trouble with each one of them and, both by example and in formal or informal sessions, was a magnificent teacher of students. His junior staff treated him with great respect, not only because of his innate ability but also because his formidable memory often led him to recall a patient’s problems far better than they did. He ran a happy and enthusiastic department.

Strongly held principles were partly the cause of his early retirement. He was unwilling to compromise with the reforms of the NHS, which he saw as putting cash before care. At the same time, he was also unsympathetic to the new winds blowing through the universities, which seemed to him to have more style than substance. Nevertheless, there was a positive side: he had many interests that he wanted to pursue - including narrow boating, camping, local history and music. He was sure that he had more than enough to occupy him during a long retirement, but he died suddenly and unexpectedly while on a camping trip in Cornwall. His wife and family all survived him.

J R Hampton

[Brit.med.J., 1991,302,843;The Lancet, 1991,337,842; Times, 2 Apr 1991;The Guardian, 1 Apr 1991;The Independent, 27 Mar 1991; The Daily Telegraph, 12 June 1991; Celebration of the life… Univ.of Notts.,13 July 1991]

(Volume IX, page 368)

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