Lives of the fellows

Arthur John Shillitoe

b.14 May 1919 d.15 August 1990
MB BS Lond(1943) MRCP(1945) FRCP(1975)

John Shillitoe might have become a professional musician, for there were no medical antecedents in his family. He excelled in music at Rugby School, encouraged in it by his headmaster, myopia limiting his athletic activities for which he had no enthusiasm. But his father, an architect and builder, considered music an uncertain and demanding profession and encouraged his son towards medicine. His myopia also rendered him unfit for military service and he pursued his medical training at Guy’s Hospital medical school during the early war years, when it was evacuated to Orpington in Kent.

His first venture to the north east was inauspicious; a brief locum as casualty officer in Middlesborough being marked by an occasion when he had to lock himself in his room to escape from a violent patient. He returned to a more conventional life in semi-rural Kent and completed house physician and house surgeon posts in Orpington. In 1944 he became medical officer in the EMS Hospital in Dartford, practising medicine and dermatology. This was a period of achievement for here he met his future wife and also passed the membership examination of the College, in preparation for which he often went up to London by the early workman’s train to hear a lecture before returning to take up his normal day’s hospital work. At Dartford he was influenced by H G Close, a pathologist, and decided on this specialty as his future career. In 1945 he and his wife moved to Oxford, where he was graduate assistant in pathology under A H T Robb-Smith. The two years at the Radcliffe were the only formal training he received in pathology, though he remained an enthusiastic student all his life.

In 1947 Kingston upon Hull Corporation required a pathologist to expand its hospital service. Shillitoe moved there to establish laboratories at the Kingston General and Western General hospitals, taking with him a young technician, Bertram Ryalls, who remained at Kingston General until his retirement. Other technicians were recruited from local people trained in the services during the war. With the advent of the National Health Service, Shillitoe joined the staff of the Hull Royal Infirmary as consultant pathologist with duties in the then three HMC areas - Hull A, Hull B and East Riding. Slowly the pathology services separated into sub-specialties and Shillitoe became entirely a morbid anatomist, directing a service incorporating all the HMCs in North Humberside, based at Castle Hill Hospital. He became interested in the potential of cytology and established a service of high quality.

There were no junior doctor posts in pathology and one of his innovations was to employ general practitioners as part-time clinical assistants in morbid anatomy. He trained them from scratch and is remembered by them as a careful, patient and enthusiastic teacher. There was no spare time for research but he wrote up a clutch of case reports, and explored the possibilities of predicting the onset of labour by vaginal cytology in pregnant women. He had no liking for the formalities of administration - one colleague described him as a subconscious anarchist - and he gave up the directorship of the department in 1963.

The first symptoms of multiple sclerosis were noted in the late ’60s and the definite diagnosis made in 1970. John Shillitoe was not a man to be beaten and he continued his active professional life even when his car had to be driven by his wife and he recurrently injured himself with falls. His indomitable will would have kept him working longer but, after a year of part-time work, he realised in 1976 that increasing visual deterioration might lead to diagnostic error and his punctilious professional responsibility led him to take early retirement.

Music had been a relaxation and solace throughout his career. He had played the violin in several East Riding orchestras and in amateur chamber groups but he could also perform on the viola, flute, piccolo and piano. The frustration of having to abandon his profession was equalled by his sadness at losing his instrumental dexterity. He became bed-fast in 1985 but surrounded himself by radios and tape players, so that music remained a consolation until the end of his life. Through his long, undignified and total physical decline he was lovingly and meticulously nursed by his wife Nancy.

John Shillitoe was a quiet, retiring man in public but behind the modest façade lay great determination and strong professional zeal. Medicine in Hull in the ’40s and '50s was a stony professional road and Shillitoe’s success, and that of his department, were based on those single-minded high professional principles.

His wife and their two sons survived him. One of his sons trained in dentistry at Guy’s and became an oral immunologist in Houston, Texas. His other son is a clinical psychologist.

J R Bennett

[Brit.med.J., 1991,302,1146]

(Volume IX, page 468)

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