Lives of the fellows

Cyril John Polson

b.9 November 1901 d.31 December 1986
MRCS LRCP(1924) MB ChB Birm(1924) MRCP(1926) MD(1929) FRCP(1941) Barrister-at-Law

Cyril Polson was born in Edinburgh, into a medical family, and was educated at Wrekin College, Shropshire, and Birmingham University. He was Queen’s Scholar in pathology and graduated with first class honours. His experience in clinical pathology commenced at the Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries, where he was responsible for the laboratory service of the hospital. In 1925 he went as lecturer in chemical pathology to the University of Manchester and worked with Shaw Dunn. He obtained his membership of the College the following year.

In 1928 he moved to Leeds as lecturer in pathology under Matthew Stewart [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.396] and was awarded his doctorate the following year. While at Leeds he took some responsibility for pathology services at St James’s Hospital and, in due course, was appointed pathologist. By this time he had also had some experience in neuropathology at Queen Square, and had visited some continental centres, notably Vienna. He published a number of papers on various aspects of pathology, such as iron poisoning, and developed a particular skill in the pathology of the eye - building up a splendid section on this subject in the departmental museum.

At this stage, his interests were turning increasingly to medico-legal matters. He was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1937, gained honours in the Bar Final in 1939, and was called to the Bar in 1940. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1941.

In 1947 he was appointed to the chair of forensic medicine at Leeds University. Until that time the chair, established in 1906, had only been occupied on a part-time basis but Polson, as a full-time professor, began to build up a department from very modest beginnings. Over the next 25 years, under his leadership, it grew into one of the largest departments of forensic medicine in the country, with a well established international reputation. Initially the practice of the department was confined to the city of Leeds, but with the passage of time it was extended to cover the whole of Yorkshire apart from the area around Sheffield. Polson was renowned as a skilful dissecter and meticulous observer, and dealt with many notable cases the most famous of which was probably the Moors Murders in 1966. He trained a number of young forensic pathologists who, over the years, have had occasion to be grateful for the careful habits he taught them.

In addition to postgraduate teaching, he was well regarded for his teaching of undergraduates. He not only lectured to medical students but developed courses for law and dental students. His course for medical students was to become the most extensive in England. Long after he had retired from teaching many of his students remembered his humour and skill as a lecturer.

Polson was also strong in scholarship. He wrote several books which came to be regarded as classics of forensic literature. The first, with R P Brittain and TC Marshall, was The Disposal of the dead, ed. C J Polson, London, English Universities Press, 1953, followed by Essentials of forensic medicine, London, English U.P.,1955, and Clinical Toxicology, with R N Tattersall, London, English U.P., 1959. Of these, Essentials of forensic medicine went into four editions in his lifetime and has been described as the best textbook on forensic medicine in existence.

Cyril Polson was highly regarded abroad as well as in this country. He became a corresponding member of La Société de Médecine Légale de France in 1950, vice-president of the second international meeting on forensic medicine in New York in 1960, and fellow of the Indian Academy of Forensic Sciences, and had many close friends abroad, particularly in the Scandinavian countries.

For many years he tried to bring the special needs of forensic pathology to the attention of the government, and he campaigned for a national forensic pathology service as he foresaw the inevitable difficulties which would arise from increasing financial pressures on the universities, which were the main sites for forensic studies. He played a large part in providing evidence to the Broderick Committee. His activities on behalf of his subject were recognized when he became president of the British Association in Forensic Medicine for three, instead of the customary two, years. He was also president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences, a founder fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, an active member of the Pathological Society, and of the Forensic Science Society.

In his spare time he collected silver, gardened, photographed church architecture, and was president of the local Gilbert and Sullivan society. He was twice married; first to Mary Tordoff, who died in 1961, and two years later to Mary Pullan, who was herself a doctor. There was one daughter of the first marriage.

Polson was short in stature, with a fine head of black hair throughout his life; a kindly man who was much loved by his staff, though sometimes intolerant of others; a first-class pathologist though never really at home in the witness box; with a pronounced sense of fun which he could quickly direct at himself, and a great loyalty to his friends. He was not one to seek the limelight, but he was one of the great scholars of forensic medicine in this century.

DJ Gee

[, 1987,294,318-9; Lancet, 1987,1,173; Times, 10 Jan 1987]

(Volume VIII, page 383)

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