Lives of the fellows

Charles Putnam (Sir) Symonds

b.11 April 1890 d.1 December 1978
KBE(1946) CB(1944) MRCS LRCP(1915) MRCP(1916) BM BCh Oxon(1919) DM(1919) FRCP(1924)

Charles Symonds, son of Sir Charters Symonds MS FRCS, surgeon to Guy’s Hospital, was educated at Rugby, New College, Oxford, and Guy’s Hospital, where he qualified in 1915. His medical training was interrupted by the first world war during which he saw service in France in the RAMC, was wounded, and awarded the Médaille Militaire. On demobilization he served as house physician at the National Hospital, Queen Square, and medical registrar at Guy’s. He graduated BM BCh in 1919, taking his DM in the same year, and then studied at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, USA, with a Radcliffe travelling fellowship. In 1920 he was appointed neurologist to Guy’s Hospital, shortly after Arthur Hurst had started a neurological clinic there. Symonds soon attracted the attention and respect of other neurologists by his exposition of the complex picture of encephalitis lethargica, and this was followed by an increasing flow of original work and critical reviews. Accepting and treating the psychoneuroses as part of his duties, he always maintained that a neurologist should be able and willing to do this.

He became honorary consultant neurologist to the Royal Air Force in 1934, and during the 1939-1945 war he gave up his large private practice and devoted his skill and experience to service in the RAF, conducting investigations into stress among bomber crews. He rose to the rank of air vice-marshal, was appointed CB in 1944 and received his knighthood two years later. On his return to civilian life he resumed his work as consultant physician in nervous diseases at Guy’s, and the National Hospital, Queen Square. He was also honorary visiting neurologist to Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1953 he toured Australia and New Zealand as Sims Commonwealth travelling professor in neurology, and gave the Harveian oration at the College in 1954. Elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1964, he was an ex-president of the sections of psychiatry and neurology. He was also secretary of the section of neurological and psychological medicine of the BMA at the annual meeting in 1923, and president of the section in 1939. He was an honorary member of many societies, including the American Neurological Association and the New York Neurology Society.

A prolific writer, the publication of a selection of his papers, Studies in Neurology (1970), was received with acclaim. It was one of the few medical works to receive an extensive review in the Times Literary Supplement. He wrote the section on nervous diseases in Taylor’s Handbook of Medicine, and acted as joint editor of later editions.

Charles Symonds was undoubtedly the most distinguished neurologist in Britain in his day. When he retired from the active staff at Guy’s in 1955 he had been neurologist to the hospital for thirty-five years and had secured an enduring reputation by establishing the neurological department as it is known today. He will probably be best remembered for his skill in clinical diagnosis and his abilities as a teacher. The whole thinking about clinical neurology was immensely influenced by his example. His superb diagnostic powers were due to his high intellectual ability, deep learning, and rigorously logical appraisal of clinical evidence. He continued as mentor and teacher to his students even when they had already reached their ‘clinical maturity’. He was rarely mistaken in his opinions, but when events proved him wrong there was never any cover up of evidence. No one was more anxious than he to go over everything again and pinpoint the error, and to ensure that the lessons learned would not be lost. He was a clinical observer in the tradition of Hughlings Jackson and Gowers, and will be remembered for the contributions he made to the study of head injuries, epilepsy, the psychiatric aspect of neurology, and the neurological aspects of psychiatry. He was above all the neurologist’s neurologist, and in this role stepped into the position which Sir Gordon Holmes had formerly occupied. Charles Symonds’ scientific integrity was absolute, and no man was less a slave of his hypothesis. He remained a perpetual student and well into his eighties he would surprise his younger colleagues by his knowledge of the current literature on his specialty and his extraordinary capacity for relating the observations of others to his own clinical experience. His mind was always open and receptive, and he never assumed that fixity which often comes with advancing years.

In 1915 he married Janet Palmer Poulton, who died four years later. In 1920 he married Edythe Dorton, and they had four sons. His favourite relaxation was fly fishing, although in later years his activities were limited by a vascular accident which left him somewhat unsteady, and he suffered from progressive deafness. However, the vigour of his conversation was unimpaired, although he said that his memory was not as good as it was - his own estimate was a reduction of 30% — yet not long before he died he was in correspondence with one of his most distinguished ‘senior pupils’ about some very new ideas and experimental findings related to the physiology of sensation.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1978, 2, 1793; 1979,1, 134, 483; Lancet, 1978, 2, 1389; Guy's Hosp. Gaz., 1979, 94; Times, 19 Nov 1978; Daily Telegraph, 12 Dec 1978]

(Volume VII, page 563)

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