Lives of the fellows

Humphry Davy (Sir) Rolleston

b.21 June 1862 d.24 September 1944
BART GCVO(1929) KCB(1919) MB Cantab(1888) MA MD Hon DSc Oxon Penn Hon DCL Durh Hon LLD Edin Glasg Bristol Jefferson Birm NUI Hon MD Dubl Paris Padua Bordeaux Madrid FRCP(1894) Hon FRCS Hon FRCPI Hon FRFPS Glasg

Humphry Rolleston was the eldest son of George Rolleston, F.R.S, F.R.C.P, Linacre professor of physiology at Oxford, and his wife Grace, daughter of Dr. John Davy and niece of Sir Humphry Davy, the chemist. He received his education at Marlborough and St. John’s College, Cambridge. From the University, where he obtained a double first in the natural sciences tripos, he went on to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to study medicine. After taking his M.B. degree in 1888, he served in house appointments at St. Bartholomew’s and as demonstrator at Cambridge, where he was elected a fellow of his College. He then obtained positions on the staffs of the Metropolitan Hospital, St. George’s Hospital and the Victoria Hospital for Children. His main connection was with St. George’s. In 1898 he was made physician and in 1919, on retirement, emeritus physician. He was also given consulting appointments at the King Edward VII Sanatorium, Midhurst, and the Royal National Hospital, Ventnor. During the South African War he served with the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital, Pretoria, and in the 1914-1918 War he was consulting surgeon to the Royal Navy, with the rank of surgeon rear-admiral. Afterwards he sat on the Medical Consultative Board for the Navy and the Medical Administrative Committee of the R.A.F., as well as many Royal Commissions, departmental committees and official enquiries. To King George V, he was Physician-in-Ordinary from 1923 to 1932, being summoned for consultation during the King’s illness of 1928-29, and then Physician-Extraordinary from 1932 until the end of the reign.

Rolleston’s work as writer, historian and bibliographer was his most lasting contribution to medicine. His first important publication was Disease of the Liver, Gall-Bladder and Bile Ducts (1905), which was reissued in a third edition in 1929. Between 1906 and 1911 appeared the second edition of the famous System of Medicine, with his name joined to Allbutt’s on the title-page. His association with Allbutt, added to his deep feeling for the history of medicine, made him an admirable successor to the Regius professorship at Cambridge, a chair which he occupied from 1925 to 1932. Rolleston’s tastes as a writer are conveyed in the titles of some of his later works, Medical Aspects of Old Age (1922), Medical Aspects of Samuel Johnson (1924), The Cambridge Medical School: a Biographical History (1932) and The Two Heberdens (1933). In 1928 he took over the joint editorship of the Practitioner and in 1936 started the British Encyclopaedia of Medical Practice. He published a biography of Allbutt in 1929.

His connection with the Royal College of Physicians was long and distinguished. He was a Censor in the years 1918, 1919 and 1921, and President from 1922 to 1926. In addition to the Harveian Oration (1928), he delivered the following College lectures: the Goulstonian (1895), Lumleian (1919), Lloyd-Roberts (1933) and FitzPatrick (1933-34). During the years of his presidency he represented the College on the General Medical Council, and subsequently, until 1932, Cambridge University. He was president of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1918 to 1920. He examined in medicine for the College and for the Universities of Glasgow, Oxford, Cambridge, London, Durham, Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield. He received numerous honours, public and academic, both at home and abroad, in the course of his career. He was created K.C.B. in 1919, a baronet in 1924, and G.C.V.O. in 1929.

Although he gave an impression of unhurried leisure, Rolleston was a man of immense industry. Tennis was his main recreation between spells of hard work. As an editor and as a historian, he paid scrupulous attention to the accuracy of every reference and date and kept a methodical system of filing and annotation. He had a unique knowledge of medical literature in an age when such knowledge was becoming increasingly rare among members of his profession. A rigid self-discipline, associated with perhaps an excessive concern with small details, did not detract from his natural courtesy nor from his sense of humour, and was probably a main factor in his unostentatious, useful life. He married in 1894 Lisette Eila, daughter of F. M. Ogilvy, and had two sons. He was a brother of J. D. Rolleston, F.R.C.P. He died at Haslemere, where he had made his home in his retirement.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1944; B.M.J.. 1944; Presidential Address to R.C.P., 1945, 14]

(Volume IV, page 373)

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