Lives of the fellows

Thomas Simpson

b.23 February 1909 d.22 February 1990
MB BS Leeds(1933) MS Chicago(1937) MRCP(1937) MD(1939) FRCP 1958

Thomas (Tom) Simpson was born in West Hartlepool and was educated at the local Grammar School. His father, James Jeffrey Simpson, was a foreman pattern-maker in the shipyard, who was suddenly made redundant and Tom had to gain a scholarship to Leeds University medical school where he graduated in 1933. After junior posts at Leeds General Infirmary, when he was also a part-time pathology demonstrator at the University, he went to Chicago, USA, in 1935, as fellow in medicine and gained his MSc at the Northwestern University the following year. He returned to the UK to be medical chief assistant to T H Oliver [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.312] at Manchester Royal Infirmary and was subsequently appointed RMO at Leeds General Infirmary. In 1938 he became MO to the Cheshire Joint Sanatorium. He had gained his membership of the College the previous year and was awarded his MD Leeds in 1939, with distinction, for his thesis on biochemical and therapeutic studies in pneumonia. This led to a career as an expert in chest diseases. The war years from 1940-46 were spent in the RAMC; first as a medical specialist in West Africa and the UK, then with No 3 Chest Unit in France, and finally with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 75 General Hospital, Brussels. He met and married Barbara Greenwood, an anaesthetist, when both were working at the Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot, in 1944. It was in France that he started an enduring friendship with thoracic surgeon Jack Collis, and on demobilization he spent a year at the Postgraduate Medical School where he formed a lifelong friendship with Nelson Coghill.

In 1947 he was appointed as physician to Chase Farm Hospital, with a special interest in cardio-respiratory medicine and he remained there until his retirement at 60. The hospital was (and still largely is) a series of Victorian buildings - originally a residential school for boys and girls - and as such the accommodation Tom was assigned for his patients was far from ideal. Despite this he did much pioneering work on respiratory function in chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and he published constantly. Funded by grants from the MRC and other sources, he attracted a large - probably the largest - number of patients with emphysema. Despite the research these patients, and indeed all his patients, were devoted to him and could never praise him highly enough. When he was on leave, his patients regarded any other doctor standing in for him as decidedly second-rate.

Tom was an enthusiast for research, as for everything he cared for, and he managed to produce work of enormous value to the clinical understanding of the management of emphysema and respiratory failure in rudimentary accommodation. Using the most primitive equipment he did most of the work himself or with the assistance of his registrars. He personally retrieved lungs from the autopsy room in order to steep them, in their inflated state, in formalin baths inside a hut beside his wards; he measured blood gases on a Van Slyke apparatus and pH on a very temperamental meter - himself. His patients had CO2, levels supposedly incompatible with life. He studied assiduously the effect of oxygen on CO2, tension and CSF pressure, and he did pioneering work on the use of tracheotomy and respiratory stimulants (nikethamide and aminophylline) on patients with respiratory failure. Apart from the numerous papers he published regularly over the years, in 1964 he wrote - just before retirement -two theses: ‘Chronic bronchitis and emphysema’ and ‘Anoxia in emphysema and its relief by CO2’, crystallising his last nine years of research.

He earned the affection of his juniors and their loyalty, which he reciprocated. He was an excellent bedside teacher, laying great emphasis on the interpretation of physical signs and the development of clinical skills. Many of his juniors have progressed to high standing in various medical disciplines. Although warm-hearted and kindly, he did have mood swings and was known to lose his temper - though he hated this as it left him out of sorts for the rest of the day. He was a blunt north country man, down to earth, and he had little sympathy with bureaucracy.

Tom Simpson was an ebullient man, his deep guffaw often preceding him down the hospital corridors. He participated with enthusiasm in hospital activities. At Christmas he was known to decline a drink on the grounds that he was ‘enough of an extrovert not to need alcohol’, and he proved the point by doing a very polished soft-shoe shuffle, with a ruler for a cane and a hat borrowed from a patient's visitor. He once pulled a fast one on the medical audience at a clinical meeting of the CFH by presenting a tape recorded interview by ‘a foreign pharmacologist’ (none other than Eddie Josse, then his registrar) concerning a revolutionary new drug cure with somewhat unfortunate and unbelievably bizarre side effects. Tom was doubled up with laughter at the back of the hall but the audience was taken in, and there was a certain amount of embarrassing facial egg to clear afterwards. He also made a film entitled ‘Acute respiratory failure in emphysema’ which won a bronze certificate in the amateur class in the annual BMA film competition - a major achievement for a district hospital with minimal facilities competing against the university photographic departments.

Tom was also a family man and, if research was not going well, he was wont to remark ‘Why don’t I go home now to play trains with my son?’ He retired early and moved from Enfield to Norfolk, to live at the family’s former holiday home. There he continued his hobbies -woodwork, sailing, golf and - later - bowls. He developed expertise as a woodturner, creating many beautiful pieces now treasured by his family and friends. He became a popular and respected village character, often seen fishing or walking along the beach. With Barbara, he was an enthusiastic naturalist and member of the National Trust. Unhappily, angina curtailed many of his activities and a cruel stroke, some 18 months before his death, left him dysphasic and unable to participate in one major pastime - a good discussion.

His wife, his son Peter - a consultant anaesthetist - and his two daughters, Penny - a hotelier, and Judith - a secretary, and eight grandchildren, all survived him.

P E Mortimer

[Brit.med.J., 1990,300,1338]

(Volume IX, page 470)

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