Lives of the fellows

Thomas Holmes (Sir) Sellors

b.7 April 1902 d.13 September 1987
BA Oxon(1923) MRCS LRCP(1926) BM BCh(1926) MA(1927) FRCS(1930) MCh(1931) DM(1933) FRCP(1963) Hon DSc Liverp(1970) Hon FACS(1971) Hon FRCSE(1972) Hon FRCSI(1975)

Sir Thomas Holmes Sellors was a past president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, emeritus surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital and consultant surgeon to the National Heart and Harefield hospitals. He was the son of Thomas Blanchard Sellors, a family doctor, who first practised in Wandsworth and later, for health reasons, at Southend on Sea, and his wife Anne Oliver McSparron. Tom was born in Wandsworth; a vintage borough for RCS presidents since two recent presidents were born within a mile of Tom’s birthplace, while a third attended a nearby primary school. Tom himself was educated first at Alleyn Court, Westcliff-on-sea and then at Loretto School and Oriel College, Oxford. At Oxford he was a contemporary of the late Derrick Dunlop [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.170] and Raymond Greene [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.228]. He secured a university entrance scholarship to the Middlesex Hospital, where he qualified in 1926.

Following resident appointments at the Middlesex and Brompton hospitals, Tom Holmes Sellors became surgical registrar to Sir Gordon Gordon Taylor at the Middlesex. During this period, as first recipient of the G H Hunt award by Oxford University in 1928, he was able to spend a year at surgical centres in Scandinavia. After a thorough grounding in general surgery, he decided to specialize in chest work which, until then, had been a somewhat limited field and associated with considerable hazard. But he was an outstanding technician and the rapidly advancing anaesthetic techniques made him determined to pioneer this new specialty. At the tender age of 31 he had the temerity to publish a book on thoracic surgery, and it is reputed that this did not endear him to some senior members of the surgical establishment who had been more tardy in putting pen to paper. Tom’s opportunity came when he was appointed to the staff of the London Chest Hospital in 1934, followed by appointments as thoracic surgeon to the Royal Waterloo Hospital and to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Stratford. He also served various LCC hospitals and sanatoria, and he started chest units at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, and the Leicester Royal Infirmary, all of which entailed much travelling and an immense workload. Throughout his life, Tom was meticulous in his support and loyalty to those whom he had trained, and he retained their deepest respect and affection.

On the outbreak of the second world war he was appointed adviser in thoracic surgery to the north west metropolitan region, based on Harefield Hospital in Middlesex, where he worked most happily and productively until his retirement. By the end of the war he was engaged purely in cardiothoracic surgery. On appointment as thoracic surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital in 1947 he developed close and cordial relationships with the cardiologists Evan Bedford [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.28] and Walter Somerville, to whose skilful assessment of patients needing heart surgery he always paid warm tribute. In 1957 he became consultant surgeon to the National Heart and Harefield hospitals. His anaesthetists, notably Parry Brown and the late Bobbie Beaver at the London Chest, and Brian Sellick at the Middlesex, worked most happily with him for many years. With Parry Brown he had some challenging and occasionally hair-raising experiences while operating in Madrid, Moscow and Guatamala. He had a devoted and enthusiastic band of loyal trainees, some of whom became internationally renowned and a number of whom predeceased him. To each of them, and to many others, he was fondly known as ‘Uncle Tom’.

From the inception of the National Health Service, Tom was active in the medico-political field. He was chairman of the north west metropolitan regional consultants and specialists committee for some years, as well as a member of the central consultants committee and its chairman for five years. He was elected to the council of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1957, and in the following year he succeeded Lord Brain [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.60] as chairman of the important joint consultants committee, linking the British Medical Association with representatives of the various royal colleges - an arduous task which he undertook for nine years. For this work and his services to surgery he received the well earned accolade of knight bachelor in 1963. He was elected vice-president of the RCS in 1968, and president from 1969-72. During this period he gave the Tudor Edwards lecture, the Gordon Taylor lecture, and was Hunterian orator in 1973. In 1972 he became president of the British Medical Association and was awarded its gold medal. He was a patron of the Royal College of Surgeons, an honorary fellow of its faculty of dental surgery, and a member of the board of trustees of the Hunterian Museum of which he was ultimately chairman.

Throughout a very busy surgical life he travelled widely abroad, lecturing and demonstrating in Europe, India and South America. He also visited the United States, Canada, Japan and South Africa. He was made an honorary fellow of the surgical colleges of South Africa and the USA, of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1963. He was also an honorary member of the Academy of Medicine in Rome, the Royal Academy of Medicine in Belgium, and of the European Society of Cardiology. In the course of his travels Tom gave many eponymous lectures and was elected honorary MD Groningen, DSc Liverpool and MS Southampton. He received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française and was an officer of the Order of Carlos Finlay, Cuba. He had a keen sense of the unity of medicine, with a strongly international outlook and sympathies.

Throughout his working life Tom was up at daybreak, or earlier; often visiting a ward before the resident staff and day nurses were about, and sometimes guided to a patient by the ward cleaners. His gentlemanly style and good manners ensured excellent rapport with the nursing staff. His kindly, compassionate character, his good humour and recognition of the foibles of human nature, gave immense confidence to his padents. He worked with deceptive rapidity and economy of effort and seldom wasted time in idle chatter, so much so that an astute trainee - anxious to secure his shrewd counsel under rather pressing conditions - once hopped into Tom’s car and took an unplanned trip from Harefield to London.

In the second half of his surgical life Tom set up no less than three open heart surgery units; at Middlesex, Harefield and the National Heart hospitals. Starting mainly with closed mitral valvotomies and Blalock operations in the early 1950s, he moved on to the closure of atrial septal defects under hypothermia. His results with this operation were unrivalled at the time. In those days he put the Middlesex and Harefield firmly on the map, with surgeons from all over the country - and from abroad - coming to watch him operate. Some of his colleagues could hardly get into the surgeons’ changing room because of the mass of visitors. Much as Tom came to enjoy explaining technical points to his visitors, he was essentially a modest and humble person; never one to take inordinate pride in his own achievements, nor to say disparaging and unkind words about his rivals.

As a technical surgeon he had few rivals, but his basic humanity and kindness made him reluctant to expose his patients to untried procedures and he was sometimes criticized for this. Whatever may have been his reluctance to subject patients to frankly experimental procedures, he did indubitably undertake the first direct operation for relief of pulmonary valve stenosis. Having set out to do a Blalock operation (which proved impracticable due to dense lung adhesions) he was impressed by the tightness of the valvular obstruction and the labouring right ventricle. Borrowing a tenotomy knife from a nearby orthopaedic theatre at Harefield, he calmly corrected the pulmonary valve narrowing and the patient was alive and well years later. News of this operation sped through the bush-telegraph and a rival surgeon quickly followed suit and was first to publish the procedure; not for the first time - Tom had also undoubtedly been the first to perform an ‘unpublished’ dissection lobectomy of the lung.

Although he never spared himself in the service of his patients and his profession, Tom had a pleasing capacity for gracious living. He lived in London for most of his life, but had been fortunate enough to acquire a country home, Spring Coppice Farm, at Speen in Buckinghamshire, before the war. This had been a strategic centre for his wartime work and was a marvellous peacetime retreat at the weekends when, except in utmost urgency, his senior registrars rarely disturbed him. He was a keen and knowledgeable gardener and a pleasing artist; rapidly painting delicate little pictures in watercolour and often leaving amusing sketches on programmes and menus.

Only those close to Tom were aware of the personal tragedies he suffered. In 1928, at the age of 26, he married Brenda Lyell but she died of acute appendicitis a few weeks later. In 1932 he had the good fortune to marry Elizabeth Cheshire and this was a happy and fruitful union. There were two children of the marriage, a son who is an ophthalmic surgeon and one time oculist to Her Majesty’s household, and a daughter. She gave him all the love and support which built his confidence in the joy and security of their family but, sadly, while their children were still young, she suffered a stroke and hypertension. At that time, the early rising Tom would often tidy the house and lay the fire for his dear wife before going to work. Elizabeth died in 1953, when Tom was at the busiest and most demanding period of his life. In 1955 he married Marie Hobson, a union which was to last 30 years, and together they presided over the social and family affairs of the Royal College of Surgeons of England with grace and distinction during his outstanding presidency. Ironically, as the non-smoking spouse of a pioneer thoracic surgeon, Marie developed lung cancer and died nearly two years before him.

Tom was lonely during the last year or so, but he never lost his sense of humour or his exceptional courtesy. A year or so before his death he had a slight stroke. Visiting him a few days later, the writer found him chuckling with glee over a Saturday tabloid newspaper which was all he had been able to buy in hospital. Remarking on his unusual reading matter and enquiring the cause of his mirth, Tom replied: ‘Just fancy. A house or ill-repute in Ambleside Avenue, Streatham. I had two respectable maiden aunts who lived there; Heaven knows what they would say if they could read this!’.

His gentle style and good manners characterised even his terminal illness. Only four days before his death, in a tired and weak voice, he did not omit to ask after those of my family that he knew. On the following day he took Communion before quietly lapsing into coma. He was survived by the children of his second marriage.

Sir Reginald Murley

[, 1987,295,790; Lancet, 1987,2,979; The Times, 16 Sept 1987; Address, St Clement Danes,2 Dec 1987; World Medicine, 1974,3 July 53-56; Trans.Coll.Med.SAfr.,Sept 1972,16,64; Middx.Hosp.J.,Dec 1970,70,(6)]

(Volume VIII, page 446)

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