Lives of the fellows

John Alfred Ryle

b.12 December 1889 d.27 February 1950
MB BS Lond(1913) MD MA Oxon MA Hon MD Cantab Hon DSc McGill MRCS FRCP(1924)

The son of R. J. Ryle, M.D, of Brighton, John Ryle was educated at Brighton College and studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital. There, having won the Treasurer’s gold medal in 1912 and graduated as M.B, B.S, a year later, he was given the usual resident appointments. He joined the R.A.M.C. when war broke out and served in the rank of captain till 1919. On his return to civilian life, Ryle rapidly came to the fore as a consultant. Elected assistant physician and demonstrator of morbid anatomy at Guy’s in 1920, he made a name for himself as an eloquent, thorough teacher of clinical medicine and as an able, confident physician. His reputation, moreover, was based on sound scientific research on gastro-intestinal disorders and cardio-vascular disease, much of which was afterwards embodied in The Natural History of Disease (1936), and on his invention of "Ryle’s tube" for the collection of gastric samples. He was invited to give the Goulstonian Lectures (1925) and the Croonian Lectures (1939) before the Royal College of Physicians, of which he became a Censor, and to serve as Hunterian professor (1932) by the Royal College of Surgeons. He was chosen to be Physician to the Royal Household in 1932 and appointed Physician-Extraordinary to the King four years later. He was a member of the Medical Research Council from 1935 to 1939.

Ryle was in the midst of an eminently successful career as a London consultant when, in 1935, as if to escape the inexorable demands of his huge practice, he accepted the Regius chair of physic at Cambridge. His intellectual range, his preoccupation with social reform, seemed to qualify him for an academic post. But in fact he never came to terms with the University. He felt ill at ease in college life, and his schemes for stimulating research did not develop fully. The declaration of war in 1939 resolved the problem of his future. After wrestling with a conscience that had conceded the pacifist viewpoint, and in spite of poor health, he returned to labour at Guy’s and to act as a consultant adviser to the Ministry of Health. In 1941 he published a collection of essays on fear and pain and on life and death, under the title Fears may be Liars (1941). A year later he severed his connection with Cambridge.

The last period of his life began in 1943 when he was appointed as the first professor of social medicine at Oxford. Here he found wider scope for his idealism and threw himself into the task of studying the environmental factors in the production of disease. His views were expounded in lectures, published with the title of Changing Disciplines in 1948. For the sake of his cause he undertook world-wide travels, although his health grew worse. His influence on current and future thought was considerable, but his practical projects were only successful in part, for though he had sincerity, unselfishness, understanding, and humility, as well as charm, he also had some of the idealist’s limitations.

Ryle married in 1914 Miriam Power Scully and had two daughters and three sons. He died at his home in Sussex.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1950; B.M.J., 1950; Oxford Medical School Gazette, 1950, ii, 84; Presidential Address to R.C.P., 1950, 11]

(Volume IV, page 595)

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