Lives of the fellows

Adolphe (Sir) Abrahams

b.6 February 1883 d.1 December 1967
OBE(1919) Kt(1939) BA Cantab(1906) MRCS LRCP(1909) MB BChir(1911) MA(1914) MD(1914) MRCP(1914) FRCP(1930)

Adolphe Abrahams was born in Cape Town, the son of Isaac and Esther Abrahams. He was educated at Bedford Modem Schools (Exhibitioner), and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was Foundation Scholar and Prizeman, and took 1st Class Honours in the Natural Science Tripos. His clinical training was undertaken at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and he qualified with the Conjoint diplomas in 1909, and two years later obtained the degrees of MB BChir Cantab. After qualification he became house surgeon, and then house surgeon to the Ear, Nose and Throat Department, following which he undertook postgraduate study in Vienna.

He served in the RAMC from 1915 to 1920, with the rank of Major, and was in charge of a Medical Division and Consultant Physician, Aldershot Command (mentioned in despatches).

He was appointed to the consultant staff of Westminster Hospital in 1920, and was also for a time consultant physician to Hampstead General Hospital and to the Royal Chest Hospital. He became Dean of Westminster Hospital Medical School shortly before the opening of the new Westminster School in Horseferry Road, in 1939, at which time he was knighted.

Sir Adolphe was a general physician with a special interest in gastroenterology. An admirer of Sir Arthur Hurst of Guy’s Hospital, who had similar interests, he attended the latter’s ward rounds, to which he contributed by his shrewd and well phrased comments. He was also deeply interested in athletics and the training of athletes, and was consulting medical officer to the British Olympic team on numerous occasions between 1912 and 1948.

His written work was largely on gastroenterological subjects, exercise, physical fitness and the training of athletes, and he contributed to successive editions of French’s Differential Diagnoses. In his early years he was also interested in photography, especially that of moving objects, and in motoring.

In 1928 he was Arris and Gale Lecturer of the Royal College of Surgeons, and some years later Lumleian Lecturer, as well as Censor, of the Royal College of Physicians. For a time he was examiner in medicine in the Universities of Cambridge, Liverpool and London, and President of the British Society of Gastroenterologists, as well as of the Section of Medicine, Royal Society of Medicine.

He was a physician of the old school to whom a detailed history and clinical examination were of basic importance, and of more importance and interest than the results of laboratory investigations, which came last to confirm or refute the clinical diagnosis. A superb lecturer, he scorned the use of notes, his lectures being remembered as much for his command of English as for their factual content. He carried, he said, about 50 lectures in his head, each timed to last 50 minutes exactly. He taught broad principles, and on such subjects as dyspepsia, diarrhoea, pain in the chest and headache, and was more stimulating by his unanswered queries than by any didactic or dogmatic expositions. His ward rounds were often enlivened by vivid, and sometimes caustic, comments to students, but his detachment perhaps made rapport with patients less easy.

He was certainly an unforgettable figure, elegantly dressed in tail coat, monocled on occasion, never in a hurry, and with an almost eighteenth century grace and charm; his knobbly hands in marked contrast to the rest. His face had a Dickensian look about it. He wrote his medical notes and opinions in microscopic script, always lucid and well phrased. A great reader, he once remarked how much he would enjoy a few weeks in prison, away from all distractions, so that he could devote himself wholeheartedly to reading. He did not care for holidays, which interfered with his well ordered life and reading and writing. He was an excellent after dinner speaker and a considerable judge of food and wine, of which he partook sparingly.

The brother of a renowned athlete, he was no mean performer himself, and was often seen in middle age running round Regent’s Park. At a scientific meeting he showed a section of one of his own arteries, perhaps to emphasize the dissociation between structure and function.

In later years his hearing became impaired but even this, he said, had its compensations. On retirement from hospital work, his interests remained unabated and he spent a good deal of his time browsing in medical libraries. On Christmas Day he turned up regularly at his old hospital wards, impeccably dressed as usual, to watch with detached amusement his former junior colleagues, dressed in crazy garb, carve the turkey. ‘I could never do that’, he remarked.

He married Adrienne Walsh in 1922 and had one son and one daughter. His younger brothers were Sir Sydney Abrahams, PC, for many years Chief Justice in East Africa and Ceylon, who predeceased him, and Harold Maurice Abrahams, the Olympic athlete.

SP Meadows
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1967, 4, 748; Lancet, 1967, 2, 1371; Jewish Chronicle, London, 15 Dec 1967; Times, 12 Dec 1967]

(Volume VI, page 1)

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