Lives of the fellows

John Davy Rolleston

b.25 February 1873 d.13 March 1946
MB BCh Oxon(1900) MA Oxon(1901) DM Oxon(1904) FSA(1926) MRCP(1926) FRCP(1931)

John Davy Rolleston was born at Oxford in 1873. His father, George Rolleston, was Linacre professor of anatomy and physiology at the University; his mother, Grace Davy, was the niece of Sir Humphry Davy—hence his second name—and his brother, senior by eleven years, the late Sir Humphry Rolleston. Such an academical background was a guarantee of a complete education, humanistic as well as medical. ‘J.D.’ entered Marlborough College in 1887, Brasenose College, Oxford, as a classical scholar, in 1891, and Charing Cross Hospital in 1895.

His clinical career began in 1902 when he entered the Fever Hospital Service of the old Asylums Board as assistant medical officer at Brook Hospital. He next proceeded to the Grove Fever Hospital, where he remained during the First World War when that Hospital was militarised. In 1926 he was appointed medical superintendent of the Metropolitan Asylums Board Infection Hospital Service, and four years later, when the Metropolitan Asylums Board Hospitals were transferred to the London County Council, he became medical superintendent of the Western Hospital, Fulham, a post he held up to his retirement under the age limit in 1938.

Thus his whole clinical life was devoted to full time hospital work and to the study of infectious diseases in children and adults. In his administrative work he was very conscientious, and in his clinical he showed himself as a keen observer. His reputation as an epidemiologist was firmly established through his various publications. Three sections of the Royal Society of Medicine, paediatrics, epidemiology and clinical, elected him as president, and he was honoured with the foreign membership of the French Society of Paediatrics and of other medical bodies.

He worked also from a social point of view, took part in the management of the Chelsea Physic Garden, was president of the Society for the Study of Inebriety and Drug Addiction, and was active in warning the public against the abuse of alcohol and the use of tobacco.

In parallel with his clinical work, J. D. Rolleston like his brother, Humphry, cultivated the history and philosophy of medicine. He became a fervent apostle for the humanistic culture of physicians. He was an original member of the section of the history of medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine when that section was founded by Sir William Osier, and served it practically his whole life, as member of the council, secretary and president, in days in which interest in the history of medicine was at a low ebb. His reputation as a historian became firmly established internationally, and he acted as general secretary of the International Congress of the History of Medicine held in London in 1922.

His clinical publications are numerous. This work is embedded in medical journals, society transactions, works of reference and the British encyclopaedia of medical practice. His historical publications are also numerous. In his History of the acute exanthemata (1937), based on his FitzPatrick lectures (1935-6), he shows how our present medical problems can be understood through the study of the past. His many other contributions are marked by a great attention to the sources, and among these there are some brilliant essays on great French clinicians, read at the Royal Society of Medicine’s section of the history of medicine. Towards the end of his life he became interested in folklore medicine.

J. D. Rolleston is a representative of that galaxy of humanist physicians who shine through the annals of the College. Notwithstanding, however, his intellectual gifts, his conscientiousness in everything he undertook and his many activities, he did not gain the wide social recognition to which he was entitled. This was due to the fact that in external appearance he was the opposite of his famous brother. He gave the impression more of a scholar than of a physician, and his bearing was somewhat restrained. Indeed his career was overshadowed by that of his brother, who, with equal intellectual gifts, had the advantage, on the strength of his majestic personality and self-confidence, of working in the world at large, whereas the life of J. D. Rolleston was restricted to hospital work, to the libraries of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal Society of Medicine, and to the intimate gatherings of learned societies.

In 1917 he married Mary Edith, daughter of Mr C. E. Waring, of Cardiff, and had a son and a daughter.

Richard R Trail

[ 1946, 1, 507-08, 630; Lancet, 1946, 1, 444; Med. Press, 1946, 215, 248; Nature (Lond.), 1946, 157, 506; Times, 16 Mar. 1946.]

(Volume V, page 356)

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