Lives of the fellows

John David Spillane

b.7 May 1909 d.23 July 1985
BSc MB BCh Wales(1933) MRCP(1936) MD(1939) FRCP(1950)

John David (Jerry) Spillane died at his home in Dyfed, West Wales. Born the son of a schoolmaster, Thomas Spillane, and his wife Margaret, daughter of John David Condon, a farmer, he was educated at High School in Cardiff, University College Cardiff, and the Welsh National School of Medicine, graduating with a gold medal and distinction in medicine. He was a University of Wales champion boxer.

After obtaining his membership of the College he travelled in the USA as a Commonwealth Fund fellow, studying under Paul White at the Massachusetts General Hospital and at the New York Institute of Neurology, before returning to proceed MD; his thesis being in cardiology. In 1939 he married Joan Rees, daughter of John Calwalader Rees, a distinguished Cardiganshire doctor. Shortly afterwards he enlisted in the RAMC and was posted first to Aldershot, then to the Middle East, and ended his war service as adviser in neurology, Middle East Forces, with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

On demobilization he spent a short period in Queen Square before being appointed to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, first as assistant physician and then as consultant neurologist and honorary lecturer in neurology in the Welsh National School of Medicine, a post which he filled with the utmost distinction until his retirement in 1974. During this period he earned the Cardiff department a national and international reputation by dint of his energy and enthusiasm for clinical research, writing and teaching. He travelled widely on a variety of fellowships, keenly observing and recording all that he saw. His contributions to his subject were legion; outstanding among them cervical spondylosis, craniovertebral anomalies, the encephalopathy of boxers, iatrogenic neurology, ‘Tegretol’ in the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, and tropical neurology.

In later years his interest turned to books. An Atlas of clinical neurology, London, Oxford University Press, 1968, ran to three editions in five languages. It was a clinical commentary on his already vast selection of photographs embracing the whole range of clinical neurology, being hailed as ‘the very essence of one of the greatest teachers of our day’ and based on his weekly clinical demonstrations, known affectionately as ‘The J D Show’ to generations of undergraduates.

Jerry’s travels inspired him to edit Tropical Neurology, London: New York, Oxford University Press, 1973, and also provided the title ‘The Geography of Neurology’ for the subject of his Bradshaw Lecture and his presidential address to the section of neurology at the Royal Society of Medicine in 1972. His most scholarly work The Doctrine of the nerves, London:New York, Oxford University Press, 1980, appeared to critical acclaim and was followed by Medical Travellers, London, Oxford University Press, 1984. A further work, on his travels in America before the second world war, was in the publisher’s hands at the time of his death.

Jerry Spillane was elected president of the Association of British Neurologists in 1974. Speaking after dinner he recounted how, as an aspiring young neurologist who had studied in detail the nutritional disorders of prisoners of war, he had presented his findings to the Association. Sir Francis Walshe [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.448] commented, in discussion: ‘... clearly someone will have to look into all this.’ Understandably somewhat disgruntled he was subsequently consoled by Lord Cohen [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.106]: ‘Don’t worry, Spillane, he was smiling as he said it.’ Spillane gloomily rejoined: ‘But his smile was like a glint of wintry sunshine on the brass handle of a coffin.’

Retirement did not still Jerry’s energies, and in 1976 he greatly enjoyed a year as Sandoz visiting professor in Dartmouth Medical School, New Hampshire.

Throughout his life Jerry Spillane’s burning ambition was to contribute significantly to his specialty, and this he pursued with literacy and zeal. Apart from his work, his interests were in his family, reading, and an informed love of music. In his retirement he enjoyed walking in the countryside and conversation with his friends. He had an impish sense of humour, little patience with fools, and respected those who held their ground when under critical attack.

Jerry was a superb clinician, especially astute in spotting the non-organic, and a magnificent teacher. His written works are his lasting memorial.

He is survived by his wife Joan, daughters Gillie and Susie, and his son John, also a consultant neurologist and responsible for the revision of the third edition of An Atlas of clinical neurology.

JG Graham
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1985,291,549; Lancet, 1985,2,677; The Times, 13 Aug 1985]

(Volume VIII, page 479)

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