Lives of the fellows

Clifford Gregory Parsons

b.28 March 1909 d.15 December 1992
MRCS LRCP(1934) MA BChir Cantab(1934) MRCP(1936) MD(1938) FRCP(1946) Hon LLD Birm(1988)

Clifford Parsons was the only son of Sir Leonard and Lady Parsons and was born in Purley, Surrey. His father was a distinguished paediatrician and became the first professor of paediatrics in Birmingham. The current chair of paediatrics and the Babies’ Block of the Children’s Hospital are named after him.

Following his father’s appointment at the Children’s Hospital, Birmingham, the family moved to Sutton Coldfield. Clifford received his early education at Bishop Vesey’s Preparatory School before going to the Leys School, Cambridge. He then entered Jesus College, Cambridge, to study medicine, returning to the Birmingham teaching hospitals for his clinical training.

After registrar and RMO posts at Birmingham General Hospital, during which time he obtained his membership of the College, he received a research fellowship at the Babies’ Hospital, New York, under Rustin McIntosh, where he met Helen Taussig who stimulated his interest in children’s heart disease.

During the second world war he served in the EMS as physician superintendent at the Burntwood Emergency Hospital, Lichfield. In 1946 he was appointed consultant physician to the United Birmingham Hospitals, with sessions at the General Hospital and at the Children’s. But before he could take up this post he had to serve in one of the Armed Forces - this being a requirement for EMS doctors before they took up another appointment - in order to allow the earlier demobilization of doctors who had served for a long time. Clifford chose to join the RAMC on an 18 months short service commission and after initial training he was posted to Egypt as a brigadier consultant physician to the Middle East Land Forces.

The NHS had come into being in 1948 and, on his return to Birmingham, Clifford was instrumental in securing the appointment of Roy Astley as consultant radiologist to the Children’s Hospital. This was the start of a cooperative effort in the investigation of children with congenital heart disease. Much pioneering work was done, including cardiac catheterization and the use of cine-angiography in two planes with the use of image intensifies. The anatomical defects were defined so that suitable surgery could be planned. Clifford was ably assisted by his registrars, to whom he gave great encouragement. They included Tom Meyer, Stuart Oldham and Shyam Singh, all of whom eventually obtained consultant posts in cardiology.

Clifford also involved A L d’Abreu [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.132] in the surgical treatment of cardiac defects: early operations included closure of persistent ductus arteriosus, shunt procedures for cyanotic heart disease, and operations for coarctation of the aorta. This development of cardiac surgery led to the creation of a paediatric intensive care unit (the first in the UK), to the building of a purposely designed cardio-thoracic operating theatre and to the selection of patients for the first open heart operations in the West Midlands. It was pioneering work which resulted in the present cardiac unit at the Children’s Hospital which has an international reputation.

During the 1950s Clifford published several important papers. A classic paper on ‘Cor triatriatum’ appeared in The British Heart Journal in 1950, followed by joint authorship of three other papers: ‘Complete transposition of the great vessels’ (1952), ‘Congenital tricuspid atresia and ‘Familial incidence of congenital malformation of the heart’ (1953). He was also assistant editor of Diseases of infancy and childhood. Sir L Parsons (his father) and S Barling, 2nd edn. London, Oxford University Press, 1954.

In the late 1960s he relinquished his adult sessions at the General Hospital, while retaining those at the Children’s, in order to become chairman of the development committee for the Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre. He was responsible for the formulation of many forward looking plans, including the move of the Birmingham Accident Hospital, the Birmingham and Midland Eye Hospital, and the Children’s Hospital to the centre site where they would be rebuilt alongside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the Maternity Hospital -thus creating a big teaching hospital campus.

He also envisaged provision of increased facilities at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, including the building of a new operating theatre block and a new radiotherapy unit. Unfortunately, to his lasting regret, in the 1970s none of these plans came to fruition owing to the prevailing economic climate and government inertia. It is indeed ironic that in 1992-93 similar proposals have been put forward for ‘Building a healthy Birmingham’ and are being re-planned. The estimated cost being far greater than if they had been carried out when first conceived.

When studying at Cambridge he met Honor Remfry, who was reading English literature, and they married in 1937. They had two daughters; Susan, who became a radiographer in Roy Astley's department, and Judith. At Cambridge, both Clifford and Honor were members of the Wesley Society and staunch members of the Methodist Church.

Clifford had a wry sense of humour and delighted in telling a story against himself. He was proud that he passed the Institute of Advanced Motoring test without a ‘refresher’ but several days later he laughingly told his colleagues that while on a dual carriage way he had been so interested in looking at an accident in the other lane that he had run into the back of a stationary vehicle. He was also a quietly determined man; when discussing his emphysema and commiserating with him that it was ‘bad luck as he was a non-smoker’ the writer learned that he had been a heavy smoker while in the Army.

At the beginning of 1950 he decided to stop smoking and in the early days, when abstinence became unbearable, he would ask his resident for a cigarette and penalize himself by insisting on paying half-a-crown for it. He later attributed his cardiac problems to his only past indiscretion. He was a lifelong teetotaller but did not object to those who ‘took a little wine for their stomachs’ sake’; at the numerous dinners he attended he would always order a bottle of wine for his table, anxiously asking ‘Is this one all right?’

Clifford was an extremely modest man. In his personal biographical notes at the time of his Fellowship, in the section ‘Other points of interest’, he wrote ‘A singularly uninteresting person’. Nothing could be further from the truth. He received numerous honours, including the presidency of the West Midlands Physicians Association, of the Midlands Paediatric Society and of the Midlands Medical Society. He was a member of the British Cardiac Society and of the British Paediatric Society. Many of his colleagues regretted that his services as a pioneer paediatric cardiologist were not recognized in the Honours List but he took great pleasure in receiving an honorary LLD degree from the University of Birmingham in 1988.

Clifford’s wife died in 1989 but, following his retirement, he kept active by working for the Samaritans and for the Birmingham Retirement Council until failing sight in the last years forced him to stop these activities. He also continued his involvement with local church affairs and it was while attending the Men’s Fellowship at Four Oaks Methodist Church that he suffered a heart attack from which he died.

K D Roberts

[Brit.med.J., 1993,306,1406; Bulletin No.40 Autumn 1974,Fac.Med & Dent,Univ.of Birm]

(Volume IX, page 408)

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