Lives of the fellows

William Ritchie Russell

b.7 February 1903 d.8 December 1980
CBE(1952) MB ChB Edin(1926) MD (1932) FRCPE(1933) FRCP(1943) DSc Oxon(1955)

Ritchie Russell was born and bred in Edinburgh, son of William Russell, professor of medicine there. His mother was Beatrice, daughter of James Ritchie, a civil engineer. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and University and qualified in 1926. He was house physician and house surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, and in 1928 became resident medical officer at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London. In 1930 he returned to Edinburgh as clinical tutor and received a Medical Research Council grant at the same time. In 1934 he became assistant physician at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. His work was particularly neurological and in 1938 he was made lecturer in that subject.

From 1940 to 1945 he was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, becoming officer in charge of the medical division of the Military Hospital for Head Injuries in Oxford, and consultant neurologist to Middle East Forces with the rank of brigadier. A pre-war interest in head injuries found ample scope during the war. His personal card index of patients in the Hospital for Head Injuries, described by a colleague at the time as Russell’s Folly, formed the basis for many excellent papers by himself and colleagues then and in the post-war years. The detailed records, especially of penetrating gunshot wounds, permitted more accurate comparisons than ever before between the site of brain injury and functional defect. His work in the Hospital for Head Injuries brought him into close touch with Sir Hugh Cairns, the neurosurgeon who was responsible for the establishment of that hospital, and in 1945 Cairns arranged his appointment as consultant neurologist in Oxford.

In Oxford his office at first was a table and chair in a corridor, and other facilities in proportion, though he had the benefit of association with a thriving neurosurgical service run by Cairns and, later, Joe Pennybacker. He built his department up over the years to give a neurological service to the Oxford region, and to have a substantial influence beyond that. While continuing his work on head injuries he turned to a neurological problem, new to this country after the war, that of epidemic poliomyelitis. He tackled all aspects of treatment of the acute disease, and he got together a team who became efficient -rare in those days - at long term artificial respiration, and were pioneers in introducing intermittent positive pressure respiration to this country, after its emergency use in Denmark in 1952. Other problems studied included pain, especially in phantom limbs, multiple sclerosis, and the management of those with chronic neurological disability.

In 1966 he became the first professor of clinical neurology in Oxford, and he retired in 1970. His chair enabled him to meet what was something of a family challenge, for his father had been professor of medicine in Edinburgh and his brother, Scott Russell, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology in Sheffield. From 1948 to 1969 he was editor, to its great benefit, of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. His books included Poliomyelitis, Brain Memory and Learning and (jointly) Traumatic Aphasia.

Clinical research was his great interest. He knew that this depended on a clinical department which gave good service, and he gave the necessary time to administration to create it. In committee his advocacy might seem disastrous, but in the corridors of power he could make the strength of his case so clear that he often got his way against strong competition. To graduates his teaching and discussion were stimulating, though undergraduates could find that he talked of problems of current interest rather than the established facts which they had to learn.

After retirement his interest in neurology continued. He also played an important part in the building of a block of flats expressly designed for the elderly. It was called Ritchie Court after him, and he lived there when not in his house in the south of France. He became a keen member of Exit, the euthanasia society, the advocacy of which he applied to his own end.

In 1932 he married Jean Stuart Low and they had one son, who became a doctor, and one daughter.

JMK Spalding

[Brit.med.J., 1981, 282, 78; Lancet, 1980, 2, 1385, & 1981,1, 57, 228; Lancet, 1970, 2, 141; Times, 11 Dec 1980; Glasgow Herald, 28 Mar 1966; Oxford Mail, 5 June 1952]

(Volume VII, page 514)

<< Back to List