Lives of the fellows

Dorothy Stuart Russell

b.27 June 1895 d.19 October 1983
MB BS Lond(1923) MD(1930) MA Oxon(1942) ScD Cantab(1943) MRCP(1943) FRCP(1948) Hon LLD Glasg(1951) Hon DSc McGill(1959)

Born in Sydney and orphaned at the age of eight, Dorothy Russell was educated in England at the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge and at Girton College, from where she graduated in 1918 with a first in the Natural Sciences Tripos. The first world war determined her choice of medicine as a career, at a time when women were encouraged to join the profession. She entered the London Hospital Medical College in 1919, where she was attracted to pathology by the prestige and influence of Hubert M Turnbull, who then occupied the chair of morbid anatomy. She was awarded the Sutton prize in pathology and after obtaining her medical degree in 1923 was appointed assistant in the Bernhard Baron Institute of Pathology under Turnbull. She first devoted her main research efforts to a systematic study of renal disease, which was published in 1929 as a special report of the Medical Research Council (A Classification of Bright's Disease). This work formed the basis of the thesis that she submitted for her MD degree in 1930 and for which she was awarded the University medal.

Her interest in neuropathology, a territory then almost uncharted in Britain, was encouraged by Hugh Cairns, who had recently returned to the London after training with Harvey Cushing at the Peter Bent Brigham in Boston. As a Rockefeller medical fellow, Dorothy Russell first went to work with Frank Mallory in Boston in 1928 and, the following year, joined Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute, where she rapidly gained masterly expertise in the use and knowledge of metallic techniques of the Spanish school and their application to the study of the central nervous system and its tumours.

She returned to the London in 1930 where she established a tradition of neuropathology which, as the result of her work and the respect that it commanded, was to gain increasing renown. In 1933 she was appointed to the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council at the London Hospital. In 1939 she decided to join Cairns, who had been appointed Nuffield professor of surgery in Oxford, and one year later succeeded Rio-Hortega as the neuropathologist at the Radcliffe Infirmary. She held that position until 1944, when she was invited by Turnbull to return to the London. In 1946, she succeeded Turnbull as professor of morbid anatomy and head of the Bernhard Baron Institute of Pathology. She was appointed emeritus professor in 1960, having over the preceding three decades made a series of outstanding original contributions that encompassed almost every facet of neuropathology.

Dorothy Russell was one of the pioneers in the application of tissue culture techniques to the study of cerebral tumours, and it is in the field of human neuro-oncology, in which she became the unquestioned leading world authority, that she left her deepest mark. She displayed uncanny diagnostic skills that were widely recognized and sought after, as evidenced by the innumerable cases that were sent to her for consultation (‘no post is complete without its little cylinder’, she was wont to say). Among her many contributions to the understanding of human cerebral tumours should be quoted her identification of the so-called ‘pinealoma’ as a form of teratomatous neoplasm unrelated to the structure of the pineal gland; her recognition of primary lymphomas of the central nervous system as a group that was distinct from malignant gliomas and which she termed microgliomatosis; her studies on the spread and metastases of gliomas in the cerebrospinal pathways, and the application of the wet film, or brain smear, technique for the rapid neurosurgical diagnosis of cerebral tumours.

Her profound comprehension of the subject and her unparalleled experience culminated in the publication, in 1959, of her book on Pathology of Tumours of the Nervous System (on which she co-opted LJ Rubinstein as the junior author). That text was widely acclaimed and its successive editions have continued to record her vast experience in neoplasia of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Neuro-oncology, however, was not the only field in which she made far reaching contributions. Her monograph entitled Observations on the Pathology of Hydrocephalus, published in 1949 and reprinted in 1967, is still regarded today as the definitive treatise on the subject. Other areas in descriptive neuropathology in which she was a pioneer include the pathology of radiation changes in the brain; neurotoxicology, in which she first threw light on the pathogenesis of cerebellar atrophy following organic mercury poisoning; the experimental production of cerebral abscesses and their response to chemotherapy and antibiotics; the pathology of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis; and the nosological relationship of acute haemorrhagic leucoencephalitis to disseminated encephalomyelitis. She thus played a major role in the foundation and growth of British neuropathology.

Numerous honours recognized her accomplishments. She was an honorary fellow of Girton College, of the Royal Microscopical Society and of the Royal Society of Medicine. She was president of the Association of Clinical Pathologists and an honorary member of the Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. She was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Glasgow and by McGill University, the John Hunter medal and triennial prize of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1934, and the Oliver-Sharpey prize of the Royal College of Physicians in 1968. She delivered the Bryce memorial lecture at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1961, the foundation lecture of the Association of Clinical Pathologists in 1961, the second Hugh Cairns memorial lecture at the London Hospital in 1962, and the Schorstein lecture at the London Hospital again in 1971. Her achievements contributed greatly to the advancement of the position of women in British medicine. She was the first woman to become head of a department of pathology in a London medical school, or indeed anywhere in the Western world, and she was the first woman member of the Medical Research Society.

She wielded a profound influence as a teacher. One of her main sources of pride was the fact that so many of those whom she had attracted to her department subsequently came to occupy chairs in pathology, neuropathology or medicine. These included CWM Adams (pathology), A Bignami (neuropathology), JB Cavanagh (neuropathology), PM Daniel (neuropathology), LJ Rubinstein (neuropathology), JP Shillingford (medicine), JC Sloper (pathology), JF Smith (pathology), H Urich (neuropathology), J Vallance-Owen (medicine), HK Weinbren (pathology) and ED Williams (pathology).

Dorothy Russell was a woman of stately dignity. Few knew her really well, and many were awe-struck by the ascendancy of her personality, in which a penetrating intellect, uncompromising honesty and gravity of demeanour were combined with a felicity and clarity of expression, both verbal and written, that were almost legendary. At the London, she was known as ‘The Lady’, a description that sums up the mixture of affection and respect which her towering formality and her distinction inspired. Her somewhat reserved and apparently lofty public persona concealed a sensitive and receptive nature, and in particular a warm sympathy for her junior colleagues, whom she not only protected and encouraged in their academic and research careers, but in whose personal problems she was genuinely, even touchingly, concerned.

She was truly unselfish and, despite (or because of) the eminence she had achieved, even inclined to moments of self-doubt. Her complex personality and her qualities are faithfully reflected in the correspondence exchanged over a span of almost twenty-five years with the writer, who, in that period of time, was the privileged recipient of almost three hundred of her letters. These letters, free of erasures and written in a firm and exquisitely legible hand, not only mirror the qualities of conciseness and clarity that were so evident to those who first met her, but also spontaneously express the kindness, the generosity and the modesty that were revealed only to her closest friends. Her genuine humility is apparent from remarks such as these: ‘I believe, of course, that we are right when we differ from others, but I am always terrified lest we should be hoodwinked by ourselves’ (7 February 1962). ‘I have always found it difficult to accept praise, and often wish I could enjoy it but my inner knowledge of shortcomings always casts its own particular shadow’ (25 February 1962). Today I heard formally that I am now an honorary member of the Pathological Society and am very pleased about this, though I cannot think why they picked on me for this very considerable honour. I suppose most of us are painfully aware of our own limitations but if these are not too obvious to others it is perhaps of some comfort’ (22 July 1963).

On the other hand, her spirit and combativeness are exemplified in the following comment on a controversial issue: ‘A certain amount of passion is demanded by a situation of this kind: a need to hit hard and leave no doubt of the stand taken. People have become too tepid in their polemics. You would have to go back to the last century, and further, for the real battles’ (30 July 1963). As to the gift for the apt phrase, for the concluding comment that could sometimes be so devastating at scientific meetings, these letters abound in such touches. Referring to the long delay in the reprinting of one of her monographs by HM Stationery Office, ‘stationary’, she remarked dryly, ‘would be more appropriate’. The technique of the light aside is practised in a masterly way. ‘AB is to get the FRCP this month’, she wrote in May, ‘very suitably on Ascension Day’. Her reply on being told a few years ago that a tribute was being prepared in her honour in a neurosurgical journal is also worth recording: The obituary is somewhat premature, and although I may have one foot in the grave, the other one is lagging far behind’.

She was indeed fortunate, after her retirement in 1960, to enjoy many years of happiness in Westcott, near Dorking, maintaining a vigorous interest in her field, helping and counselling her colleagues and friends, while her scientific contributions continued to be authoritatively quoted throughout the world. In the surroundings of her simple but comfortable house, with its lofty view of the Surrey hills, she was able to satisfy her long interest in gardening and botany. Numerous friends visited her. She loved music and made a regular yearly pilgrimage to Glyndebourne. She long maintained a spirit of indomitable energy, which made her willing to undertake distant travels to Puerto Rico, Yucatan and Ethiopia in her late seventies. Her mind stayed active and its acuity unimpaired till almost the very end. She died at the age of 88, after a brief illness and a life filled with impressive achievements. With her passing, a truly extraordinary person went, leaving to us an imposing body of scientific work that continues to stand the test of time, a model to others in the setting of intellectual standards and of meticulous performance that few are able to match, and the memory of a scholar and teacher whose influence and example immeasurably enriched those who were fortunate to have known her.

LJ Rubenstein

[Surgical Neurology, 1976, 5, 267-268; Times, 20 Oct 1983; Lancet, 1983, 2,1039;, 1983, 287, 1477-1478]

(Volume VII, page 510)

<< Back to List