Lives of the fellows

Charles Garrett Phillips

b.13 October 1916 d.9 September 1994
BA Oxon(1938) BSc(1939) BM BCh(1942) MRCP(1944) DM(1951) FRCP(1962) FRS(1963) Hon DSc Monash(1971)

Charles Garrett Phillips had a major impact on experimental and clinical neurology, recording from pyramidal neurons in the cortex and contributing to our understanding of central motor control. In his monographs and in many of his papers Phillips successfully demonstrated the relevance of animal data, intelligently adduced, for the management of motor disorders in man.

Phillips’ formidable analytical intelligence was evident at an early stage, and perhaps best demonstrated in his Ferrier lecture and in two monographs. In his 1968 Royal Society Ferrier lecture Phillips explained how the brain was involved in the servo control of the muscles of the hand in primates. Secondly, with his main collaborator in the 1960s, Bob Porter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.380], Phillips wrote a book entitled Cortico spinal neurones: their role in movement (London, Academic Press). Published in 1977, the monograph is a seamless synthesis of electrophysiological and micro anatomical studies in which Phillips and Porter refer frequently to the work of their contemporaries as well as historical pioneers. Phillips’ second monograph on Movements of the hand (Liverpool University Press, 1985), based on his 1982 Sherrington lecture, was the acme of his scientific thought and writings. He described in detail the inputs and outputs of the cortical modules which resemble the "integrated circuits in electronics terminology". He particularly emphasized the importance of inputs from the muscle afferents which he had already highlighted in his Ferrier lecture, and moved easily from the micro to the macro by explaining the circuitry for programmed motor patterns in the central nervous system.

Charles Garret Phillips was the son of George Ramsey Phillips, anaesthetist to St Mary’s Hospital, and Flora Phillips. He was educated at Bradfield College, Magdalen College, Oxford, and at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. At Oxford he took a first in animal physiology. After medical qualification he spent three years in the RAMC as a neurologist during which time he took the MRCP. After the war Phillips returned to Oxford, where he became a fellow of Trinity College in 1946, a university lecturer, reader, and subsequently appointed to a personal chair in neurophysiology in 1966. He was a secretary of the Physiological Society between 1960 and 1966. In 1975 he was elected to Dr Lee’s chair of anatomy at Oxford and retired in 1983.

In spite of the high status he had achieved Charles remained remarkably modest. It was this modesty and a degree of uncertainty, together with the wish not to be constrained by commitments to outside funding bodies, which prevented him from applying for a research grant. However, it must also be admitted that the generous ‘class grant’ which the University bestowed on the physiology laboratory made an application for outside funds unnecessary. The realization that the University’s generosity was not uniformly distributed in South Parks Road proved to be one of three culture shocks which stunned Phillips when he took up the chair of anatomy. In contrast to the situation in the physiology laboratory, Phillips found that virtually all research depended upon outside grant funding. The two other shocks in store for Charles were, first, the conflict between staff which was generated by the five years of uncertainty which followed Geoffrey Harris’ untimely death in 1971, and, secondly, the fact that the teaching of topographical anatomy had not changed since Phillips was a student. Charles Phillips’ appointment allayed the uncertainty of the interregnum that followed the death of Harris and this, together with his gentle but firm democratic leadership, soon restored civilized relations between the staff. But he was not so successful in revising the teaching of topographical anatomy. Charles placed greater emphasis on ‘functional’ anatomy, including the introduction of transcutaneous stimulation of muscles. But, it was clear to all that Phillips’ appointment was an interim measure. He will not be remembered as an anatomist, nor would this have been his wish.

During his years in human anatomy Phillips also served as editor of Brain and on the Medical Research Council, tasks which he took very seriously. As editor he was proud of the fact that he did not reject papers: rather he urged respect for the work of others even though this sometimes involved major revision of the text or additional experiments to bring the manuscript up to scratch.

Charles Phillips was a quick witted and articulate speaker and a gifted conversationalist. To dine with him at a dinner of the Physiological Society was always an immensely rich and pleasurable experience. Indeed Charles endeavoured to make each encounter with colleagues and friends an intellectual occasion using his gentle but penetrating wit and judiciously crafted turn of phrase to set the ambience.

Research for Phillips came to an abrupt end when he transferred to human anatomy and retirement, when it came in 1983, was complete. This contrasted quite markedly with the lifestyle of some of his close colleagues who were equally or more active in research after retirement. But it was characteristic of Charles to follow life in a precise and orderly sequence. He also confided that experimentation through the night, which recording from cortical neurons demanded, had become too great a strain. However, it seemed to the observer that Charles was in fact quite content in that he had by the age of 58 completed the task he had set out to accomplish. It is a tragic irony that the end for a man of his powerful and acute intellect was accompanied by severe mental deterioration. He married Cynthia, herself a physician, in 1942 and they had two daughters.

George Fink

[The Times, 16 Sept 1994; Brit.med.J., 1995,310,324]

(Volume X, page 385)

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