Lives of the fellows

Douglas William Claridge Northfield

b.17 February 1902 d.18 July 1976
LDS RCS(1923) MRCS LRCP(1925) FRCS(1928) MB BS Lond(1930) MS(1931) FRCP*(1966)

Douglas Northfield was born in London, son of William Ebenezer Northfield, who had a small umbrella business in Charing Cross Road, and Emily Sarah, daughter of Joseph Taylor, a butler. He was educated first at Haverstock Hill LCC Primary School and then at Haberdashers’ Aske’s. On leaving he went directly to Guy’s Hospital, where he qualified in dentistry in 1923 and in medicine in 1925. He proceeded to his MB BS with gold medal in 1930 and followed this with the MS in 1931. Northfield had already become FRCS (Eng) in 1928. Apart from the rapidity and ease with which he obtained higher qualifications, he also won many prizes at Guy’s, including the Treasurer’s medals in medicine and surgery, the Arthur Durham travelling fellowship and the Will Edmonds clinical research fellowship. In 1936 he was elected a Hunterian professor of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Northfield was occupied in resident posts at Guy’s from 1925 to 1927; he was surgical registrar from 1928 until 1931. In 1932 and 1933 he was demonstrator in anatomy in the medical school. His life’s work, though conceived when dissecting the brain at Guy’s, really began in 1934 when he joined Hugh Cairns as house surgeon at the London Hospital, a road then taken by many aspiring neurosurgeons from home and overseas. In 1937 he became assistant neurological surgeon at the London, with promotion to neurological surgeon the following year on Cairns’ departure for Oxford. Thereafter he served the hospital until his retirement in 1967, though his surgical work was carried out at Chase Farm Hospital during the second world war.

Douglas Northfield was first secretary and later president of both the neurological section of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Society of British Neurological Surgeons. He was president of the EEG Society and of the British Branch of the International League against Epilepsy, and he served as secretary of the third International Congress of Neurosurgery (1965). He was elected to the fellowship of the College in 1966.

In his earlier days Northfield worked on the problems of headache, making original observations on the distribution of pain-bearing structures within the head, and also on the thalamus. Later he published important papers on angiomatous malformations of the brain, Rathke pouch tumours, and the surgery of temporal lobe epilepsy. However, his main contribution to the literature was The Surgery of the Central Nervous System, a remarkable work which provides a lasting memorial to his achievement.

Northfield was an excellent neurological physician, and a surgeon of the highest technical quality. His clinical work was characterized by unlimited patience; he had no time for persons who took short cuts and neglected full history-taking and examination. His professional and scientific capacity were recognized throughout the world; surgical skill, wide knowledge and fine judgment brought many visitors to his department at Whitechapel.

Like Hughlings Jackson, a medical neurological predecessor at the London, Northfield received no public acknowledgment of his service, and perhaps there was none which was suitable; nor was he elected to the council of the Royal College of Surgeons. He held no non-medical appointments. The answers to this apparent paradox may be found in the man, a private person whose qualities were only appreciated by his close colleagues and others who knew him well. His beginnings were humble, and his achievements were the fruit of his own ability, industry and dedication; yet he never showed envy of those whose path had been easier. Although a charming host and friend he was austere at heart and unyielding in his pursuit of what he thought to be right. He abhorred loose thinking and argument and was quite intolerant of anything less than dedication to the task at hand. The soul of integrity himself, he was impatient and irritable with those prepared to accept what he regarded as lower standards of behaviour. Compromise did not come easily to him. Indeed, while his integrity, determination and pursuit of truth were immense assets in surgical practice, they made him a rather solitary figure on the larger stage. In summary, his standards were too high and his attitudes too inflexible for his time.

Northfield was never granted the space nor staff to develop a large department, and it is probable that he was at his best in a small group or on his own with a patient and the X-ray films. The neurosurgeons he trained were his loyal and affectionate supporters. While he had several interests outside medicine he allowed himself little time for them, working far into the night and at week-ends. Nevertheless his artistic skills are preserved in his drawings of operations.

He married (Eva) Marjorie, daughter of Philemon Murgatroyd Slater, a Yorkshire hotel keeper, in 1932, and she died in 1974. They had a son, a fellow of the College, and a daughter.

RA Henson

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[Brit.med.J., 1976, 2, 372, 536; Lancet, 1916, 2, 266; Times, 20 July 1976]

(Volume VII, page 434)

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