Lives of the fellows

Joanna Sheldon

b.10 March 1931 d.31 December 1985
MRCS LRCP(1955) MB BS Lond(1955) MRCP(1962) MD(1966) FRCP(1975)

When she died, aged only 54, Joanna Sheldon was consultant physician to the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, and Hove General Hospital, and a distinguished figure in diabetes in Britain.

She was born in London, the daughter of Wilfrid Sheldon, later Sir Wilfrid [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.531], and Mabel Winifred née Netherway, educated at St George’s School, Harpenden, and graduated at King’s College Hospital Medical School. After house appointments at King’s and Brighton, she spent four years in the departments of medicine and endocrinology at Ann Arbor Michigan, where she was offered a staff appointment. However, she returned to the UK, where she became registrar to the diabetic department and then senior medical registrar at King’s College Hospital. In 1968 she was appointed consultant physician at Brighton.

Joanna came from a remarkable medical family, Her father was the first Royal paediatrician, and her election to FRCP in 1975 marked the first time that a father and daughter had been Fellows of the College concurrently. An uncle, the late Joseph Harold Sheldon, had also been a Fellow [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.402]. Another uncle, two cousins, a niece and nephew, were all doctors. Every one of them had been trained at King’s!

In Brighton it did not take long for Joanna Sheldon to develop her exceptional talents as a clinician, teacher and researcher. But it was in diabetes that she achieved dominance both locally and nationally. She was one of the pioneers of evening clinics for working diabetics and, as long ago as 1968, started regular sessions, also in the evenings, with patients in order to educate them in their own disease. Her devotion and kindness to her patients were often disguised by a firmness and sometimes headmistress-like strictness, but always in their interests and never because of ill-temper or haste. Woe betide the obese diabetic who had failed to lose weight by his next visit. Her imposition of discipline for the sake of her patients was also illustrated by her insistence on quietness in the wards during her rounds, and that general practitioners must always attend her domicilary consultations.

During her early years in Brighton she continued laboratory research at the Univerity of Sussex, where she became a visiting research fellow, but eventually her clinical commitment as well as the load of her committee work and her involvement in local medical societies, including the presidency of the Brighton and Sussex Medico-Chirurgical Society from 1984-85, forced her to abandon this in favour of clinical research. Her publications totalled no fewer than 42 articles and chapters in books. She did a formidable amount for the British Diabetic Association; was secretary of its medical advisory committee from 1971-77 and chairman of the U.100 syringe subcommittee from 1980-85, during which time she played a major part in the smooth transition to the U.100 system in this country.

Joanna Sheldon never married and what little time she allowed herself away from medicine was filled by her other loves - her family, classical music, gardening, birdwatching and mountain walking, epecially in the Dolomites.

In 1980 she developed a malignant tumour which was successfully treated by surgery. However, four years later she learned that she had a second primary which this time was widespread. She endured operation and very unpleasant chemotherapy with great fortitude, and later, when recurrence became evident, she chose to have yet another and even more extensive operation followed by radiotherapy. Between each of her numerous hospital admissions she returned to work and saw her last patient only three weeks before her death. In the fifteen months during which she knew her time was limited her primary concern was to minimise distress to her family and friends and, with her courage and optimism, based on her firm Christian belief, she succeeded.

P Sharpstone
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1986,292,209; Lancet, 1986,1,116]

(Volume VIII, page 458)

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