Lives of the fellows

Elizabeth Ann Ryan

b.26 June 1926 d.28 September 1999
MB BS Lond(1952) MRCP(1958) FRCP(1976)

Elizabeth Ryan was a dermatologist who was fascinated by the histology of the skin. Her intellectual curiosity and his fastidious attitude in assessing scientific fact from fiction impressed Ian Magnus with whom she worked at the Institute of Dermatology, St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. He was among the first to delineate erythropoietic protoporphyria and Elizabeth Ryan described the characteristic histological findings. These findings were compared with those of other photodermatoses. The prestigious Chesterfield medal in dermatology was awarded to her in 1961 for her essay on dermatoses of pregnancy.

She was educated at Malvern Girl's College where she was head girl. She was later one of the first women to be accepted by St Thomas’s Medical School. Her father was a consultant anaesthetist at St Thomas’s, where her mother was a theatre sister.

Elizabeth Ryan was a house physician at St Thomas’s in 1953 and subsequently registrar at St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin and senior registrar in dermatology at Charing Cross and Central Middlesex Hospitals. From 1965 to 1971 she was senior lecturer and honorary consultant at the Institute of Dermatology, St John’s, where she worked for George Wells [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, web] in the histology department.

During this period the first Dermatology Congress of Skin Function was held in Brno in Czechoslovakia, while it was under Communist domination. A Czech dermatologist, Pavel Bartäk, asked to come to England, his wife and two children staying in Prague as a guarantee that he would return. He worked with Elizabeth Ryan while she was interested in the Langerhans’ cell in mycosis fungoides cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. She was invited to Prague to stay with the Bartäks, bedding down in their large one room flat where the whole family lived. This was the start of Elzabeth’s passionate horror of the Communist regime and her enthusiasm for Czechoslovakia which lasted her for the rest of her life.

On returning home Pavel Bartäk was banished from Prague University and sent to work in the country, as he was regarded as having been contaminated by the West. Elizabeth and others went to enormous trouble to find him a consultant job in England and public schools for his children.

Other Czechoslovakians followed to St John’s, and Elizabeth became particularly friendly with an immunologist, Jan Krejci, his wife and large number of children - some of them subsequently becoming professional musicians. Elizabeth and Ian Magnus arranged and paid for one of the children to have classes in London.

Elizabeth became a frequent visitor to Prague, and was there during the Prague Spring and consequent Russian-led Warsaw Pact tank invasion of Czechoslovakia. She was also in Prague during the final fall of Communism in 1989, which she said was the most exhilarating event of her life. Elizabeth’s small flat in Lennox Gardens, in Knightsbridge, London, was constantly occupied by a host of Czechs.

Oliver Scott, head of the dermatology department at the Charing Cross Hospital, arranged for her to work in his department. She also became a part time senior lecturer in the anatomy department of its medical school after she left St John’s Hospital. She lectured in histology and ran a skin course on a BSc degree for a group of high-powered medical students.

She took a keen interest in her students, as she did in the staff of the Sainsbury supermarket business by whom she was retained as the consultant dermatologist at the suggestion of Harvey Baker. She only started private practice at the Cromwell Hospital towards the end of her career.

She was an avid concert goer according to her sister who was a professional musician - a viola da gamba player. Her other sister is a professional flautist. Elizabeth was in the Bach Choir and played the piano, violin and lute.

Her friend David Perrins said she was unfailingly unselfish and helpful. A chapter he had written on hyperbaric oxygen for the treatment of leg ulcers was due to be sent to the publishers. Before he could do the references he fell ill. Elizabeth took over this task, finalizing all the references and sent if off for him.

She died during a visit to Prague. While she was staying with the Krejcis she developed a headache, then lapsed into a coma. She had ruptured an intracranial congenital aneurysm. A further intracranial haemorrhage occurred and brain stem compression was found after a second craniotomy. The Krejcis looked after her at their home, arranged hospital admission, and when she died arranged for her to be returned to England.

Katherine Grice

(Volume XI, page 494)

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