Lives of the fellows

Joseph Harold Sheldon

b.27 September 1893 d.22 June 1972
CBE(1955) MRCS LRCP(1918) MB BS Lond(1918) M(1920) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1929) Hon MD Bristol(1958) Hon LLD Birm(1965) Fell King’s Coll Lond(1956)

Harold was the eldest son of John Joseph Sheldon and Marion Squire, née Spring, a woman who had read widely and been blessed with a sense of humour. The pair had made their home at Woodford and Harold was born there. His father spent his life as a clerk in Lloyds Bank in Lombard Street, but he was a born countryman and a great horticulturist, and was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society for the work he had done on the raising of new ferns. Joseph and Marion Sheldon subsequently had four more children, two girls and two boys, Wilfrid, later to become Sir Wilfrid Sheldon KCVO, FRCP, and Colin who became a general practitioner at Reigate.

Harold Sheldon first went to Bancroft’s, a Drapers’ Company School at Woodford where the fees were £3 per term. He revelled in the Latin he was taught and the classical literature it opened up to him, and he begged the headmaster to be allowed to study Greek, but he was not allowed to do this and, to his lasting regret, he had to matriculate at 16 without Greek. He was never a games player and was probably fortunate not to have been at one of the large boarding schools in the early years of this century.

After he had matriculated Harold Sheldon followed his father into Lloyds Bank and was perhaps lucky to be sent to work in the secretarial department. In his late ’teens, however, Harold was overcome by the idealism of Christianity and a great desire to pass it on to others. This made him decide to leave the bank and to try to become a medical missionary. He set out to get a Worsley scholarship to help him through his training, and to show his ability was invited to write an essay on ‘Pain in relation to a belief in God’. Few boys, before or since, would have felt equal to this challenge, but it proved just the right one in his case. He chose for his theme ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18, 2), was awarded the scholarship and started his career in medicine at King’s College, London.

When he had completed only one year of his clinical studies, he joined the Navy as a Surgeon Probationer, as it was possible to do in the first world war, and saw service in a sloop, HMS Wistaria, in the Mediterranean. He returned for study leave at intervals to complete his clinical work and to qualify.

By 1918 Wilfrid Sheldon’s future was under consideration and a wealthy Australian uncle offered to train him up in his manufacturing business, but J.H. decided that his brother should become a doctor like himself, and, if his parent could pay for Wilfrid’s keep, he would himself pay all his fees. By this time the war was over, and in order to collect the necessary money J.H. volunteered as a Surg. Lt. for mine-sweeping for the sake of the salary and the danger money, and served mostly in the Baltic. By the time he was demobilised J.H. realised that his decision to be a medical missionary had been a mistake, so he surrendered his Worsley Scholarship and set out to refund the money he had been given for it.

Returning to the hospital at Denmark Hill in 1918, J.H. became a house physician and assistant casualty officer, and Sambrooke Medical Registrar and Tutor in 1919-20. This gave him his chance as a clinical teacher and he very quickly became an extremely good one; for the rest of his life his presentation of a case was superb. He took his MD and MRCP, was appointed to the staff of the Royal Hospital, Wolverhampton in 1921, and soon found himself able to help to educate his youngest brother, Colin. He was now 27 and in the same year he married Marjorie Bannister, the daughter of a schoolmaster. This marriage was a supremely happy one. Their first child, Peggy, was born in 1924, but unfortunately their second was a transverse presentation and died at birth in 1927.

Wolverhampton put Harold within reach of the Wrekin and the Welsh Hills. He was fascinated by their beauty, and their call led him to become an experienced mountaineer, a frequent visitor to the Alps and a member of the Alpine Club. He went with his wife to the Alps in 1927, and, tragically, she died there suddenly while they were out mountaineering. The cause of this was probably a large pulmonary embolus. Harold made many subsequent visits to the Alps and in 1928 he took part in a courageous rescue operation on the Petit Dru for which he was honoured by the French Government. He was for a time President of the Midland Association of Mountaineers. He climbed in the Dolomites in 1934 and 1935, and wrote up his climb of the North wall of the Langkofel. By the later 30’s his chest was beginning to be a handicap at high altitudes, but in 1938 he went to the Lofoten Islands to climb and to see something of the bird life.

It was his power of observation, which he inherited from his father, coupled with an amazing memory, which made J.H. such a brilliant clinician and teacher. He arranged his out-patient sessions to fit the Wolverhampton market days, and soon found himself a leading physician in the West Midlands. His reputation as a teacher spread over the country. Many students from the Middlesex profited by his ward rounds during the war, and applicants for his house appointments came from far and near. He was Hon. Secretary of the South Staffs Division of the BMA from 1924 to 1930 and President 1924-5 and 1930-31. He joined the consultant staff of the Bridgnorth and S. Shropshire Infirmary, New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton, and Midland Counties Eye Infirmary. He was Hunterian Professor of the College of Surgeons in 1928. He became a consultant for the Guest Hospital, Dudley, in 1929 and of the Hallam Hospital at W. Bromwich in 1941. In the mean time (1937) he had been elected a member of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1942 he became a lecturer in Medicine at Birmingham University and later Chairman of the Consultant Services Committee of the Birmingham Regional Hospital Board; in 1948 a member of the Distinction Awards Committee of the Ministry of Health, and in 1961 of the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority. He was a Councillor of the College of Physicians 1948-50 and was awarded the Moxon medal in 1966. He served as an internal examiner in medicine at Birmingham and as an external examiner at London, Liverpool, Bristol and Makerere (Uganda).

Although J.H. was such a good clinical teacher his calibre as an original investigator was as great. His early work was mainly on mineral elements. His Hunterian Lecture to the College of Surgeons in 1928 was entitled "An undescribed disease of bone", but he had already been writing on haemochromatosis and he began studying this disease in depth, gave the Bradshaw lecture on the subject at the RCP in 1934, and published the results as a book in 1935. After several purely scientific papers he summarised his findings in a lecture called The Mineral basis of life’, a title which came to him in his bath.

His investigations were nearly always sparked off by a clinical observation which he pursued with all the skills he could command. During the war these were few, but the patient way he traced out the story of the outbreak of trichinosis in Wolverhampton is an excellent example. It may well have been while doing this that he became interested in the lives of old people in Wolverhampton. It was about this time certainly that he embarked upon the work which few but he could have done, and for which he will always be remembered. His book published in 1948, The social medicine of old age, brought him world wide recognition, presidency of the International Association of Gerontologists in 1954, and a journey round the world to lecture on the subject in the following year. The two honours he prized above all others, however, were his Fellowship of King’s College, London, and having been made an Hon. Freeman of the County Borough of Wolverhampton, the town for which he had done so much.

In spite of all his honours J.H. remained a humble, unselfish and lovable man, ready as always to do what he could for other people. For many year an inverterate pipe smoker, he gave it up on his own advice after the war. He was a wide and discriminating reader, a lover of good music and a great admirer of scholarship and discovery in almost any field. His retentive memory and powers of observation made him able to speak with authority and no little interest on many things - some of them as widely separated as church architecture and sailing clippers. A keen ornithologist and photographer, he combined the two hobbies for a time to study the flight of birds, how they dived and the stability of some of them when asleep standing on one leg. He published in British Birds his observations over a number of years on the movements of the Northern Golden Plover while on migration through South Staffordshire.

It was pure joy to be taken round Wolverhampton by him during the darkest periods of the war, and listen to him talking about the place, its history, its industries and his contacts with so many of the people in them. It was equally enjoyable to cycle to the Bellvide reservoir with him on a Saturday afternoon during the winter or early spring to look at the duck, being shown a number of glacial erratics on the way and told their probable site of origin.

Railways and railway accidents were another of Harold’s great interests and he had a delightful story about a journey to London by the GWR during the latter part of the war. He had arrived in good time and strolled forward to study the engine. To his surprise he recognised both the driver and fireman as recent patients of his. One had had a coronary thrombosis and the other a large haemorrhage from a duodenal ulcer. He wished them well and got into the front compartment. He reached Paddington on time as they had assured him he would!

After his retirement he married Miss K. Luckett, with whom he had worked for many years, and moved to a small cottage in Codsall Wood. Although progressively handicapped by shortness of breath, the last 9 years of his life were happy ones. He cycled less and less but continued to read voraciously while he could, listened to his "records" and good concerts and, characteristically, took a keen interest in the laying of the pipes to bring in the North Sea gas, because, during the deep trenching, many new facts came to light about the glacial flows west of Wolverhampton during the ice ages.

RA McCance

[Brit.med.J., 1972, 3, 180; Lancet, 1972, 2, 94, 190; Birmingham Post, 27 June 1972]

(Volume VI, page 402)

<< Back to List