Lives of the fellows

Sigvald Refsum

b.8 May 1907 d.8 July 1991
MD Oslo (1932) *FRCP(1982)

Sigvald Refsum was the son of a dean in the Lutheran church and was born in Gransherad, Norway. He was educated at Oslo Katedralskole - the Cathedral School founded in 1153 by the English cardinal Nicolaus Breakspeare, later to become Pope Adrian IV. He studied medicine at Oslo University and after graduation worked at Oslo City Hospital and was trained in neurology in Monrad-Krohn’s [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.289] department. In 1946 he published the description of a distinct disease that he called ‘heredopathia atactica polyneuritiformis’ but which has ever afterwards been called Refsum’s disease. He continued his interest in this and other hereditary diseases and his clinical acumen was later confirmed by the discovery that his disease was the result of accumulation of phytanic acid due to a deficiency of the appropriate oxidizing enzyme and that dietary restriction was partially successful in ameliorating the condition.

In 1952 Refsum was appointed the first professor of neurology at the University of Bergen and in 1954 he succeeded Monrad-Krohn in the chair at Oslo University, a post he held until his retirement in 1978. He was a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and president from 1970-75. His contributions to neurology were recognized by the accolade of Knight of the Royal Order of St Olav.

Sigvald Refsum was in great demand as a visiting professor in many countries and his international reputation was recognized in 1973 by his election as president of the World Federation of Neurology, a post involving much travel and diplomacy at which, in a quiet but effective way, he excelled. He was an honorary member of innumerable national neurological associations. After his retirement he continued his major interest in improving the lot of those injured by war or by confinement in concentration camps.

Refsum was a scholarly man with extensive interests in art, literature and the humanities. He was well versed in classical Greek and, with his wife Sigrid, he established a fine collection of paintings. He was gifted with exquisite tact and modesty. While the rest of the world used the eponym for the hereditary disease he had described, he would shyly refer to ‘a certain disease’.

W B Matthews

* 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., 1991,303,919]

(Volume IX, page 444)

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