Lives of the fellows

George Crichton Wells

b.13 July 1914 d.16 January 1999
BA Cantab(1936) MB BChir(1939) MRCP(1946) FRCP(1959)

George Crichton Wells was a consultant dermatologist at St Thomas’s and St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. He was one of the large Bedford brewing family; his father, Sir Richard Wells, had been the local MP for many years. At school he shone at rugby, swimming, especially diving, and rowing. He was also academic, gaining a scholarship to Cambridge. He went on to St Thomas’s for his clinical work and qualified in 1939.

There was just enough time for two house appointments and an early, though unsuccessful, stab at the MRCP. After the prescribed course at the RAMC depot, Crookham, he found himself posted to general duties. Soon frustrated and bored with inactivity, he volunteered for the paratroops. He served with a paratroop field ambulance in different theatres of war, in Tunisia and Sicily, Greece and France. In Greece during the civil war he was in charge of a mobile blood transfusion unit; stored blood could not be carried, but all his troops conveniently had their blood groups classified and would be bled as needed on the spot. Soon after D-Day he was ‘dropped’ into France. He tangled himself in a tree and once his colonel was killed he took over the command himself. Pressure became intense with the influx of American paratroops, many of whom were to suffer serious injuries on landing. With his orthopaedic surgical colleague, Wells, now acting as the anaesthetist, attended to a multitude of casualties and worked non-stop for 48 hours.

Following demobilization Wells returned to St Thomas’s, his record ensured special recognition and he was appointed registrar to Owen de Wesselow’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.101] medical unit, a prestigious job which he did not enjoy, though it gave him an insight into and experience in academic medicine. He quickly acquired the MRCP in 1946.

At that time dermatology was entering into its vibrant heyday at St Thomas’s, Geoffrey Dowling [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.163] and Hugh Wallace [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.520] were stimulating a cadre of enthusiastic registrars. Wells was definitely attracted and turned his thoughts in that direction and as luck would have it George Prunty, professor of biochemistry, who was working in the steroid field, alerted him to what was afoot in Chicago. There Stephen Rothman, a Jewish emigrant from Budapest, had been appointed to the first full time chair of dermatology in the USA; he was developing a department which was to become world renowned. Here, among other innovative techniques, the seeds of histochemistry as applied to dermatopathology were being fostered. Wells arrived to find himself with George Findlay from Pretoria, Theo Inderbitzin from Zurich and others who were later to make a reputation for themselves.

Wells decided to stay a second year, so inspiring did he find the environment. Rothman was also impressed and offered him a permanent post. It was the time of the Berlin wall and the Allied air-lift. This fraught period may well have unsettled Wells enough to prompt his return home.

Rothman knew W N Goldsmith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.201] in London, both had studied in Breslau (now Wroclaw),Jadassohn’s academic citadel, and there the two had become friends. Goldsmith, in charge of dermatology at University College Hospital, was looking for a junior and, with Rothman’s glowing report, wasted little time in seeing Wells and appointing him his senior registrar. It was not a happy arrangement. Goldsmith, an erudite perfectionist, was ponderously slow. Clinical work seemed infinitely tedious and neither found the other an easy partner. So far as immediate employment was concerned, there was a vacuum.

The Berlin crisis had been resolved and, with no immediate prospects in view, Wells (now married) decided to return to Chicago with his new wife. Back as assistant professor, he studied connective tissue ground substance, work that was to form a chapter in Rothman’s Physiology and biochemistry of the skin, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1954. That same year the two returned home to England.

The Institute of Dermatology, embryonic post-graduate offspring of London University, was emerging at St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. Dowling, the first director, had been giving thought to a full time senior lecturer, someone who, on his own retirement might succeed him as professor. George Wells was well known to him, he had the brains, a thorough grounding in general medicine and now interest and skill in a new field - histochemistry. Wells was appointed in 1954 and soon had his laboratory set up at Lisle Street.

As Dowling approached his retirement the appointment of Wells to the new chair had seemed a foregone conclusion, but the apple cart was upset by Wells being encouraged to apply for the consultancy at St Thomas’s, the very one being vacated by Dowling (who strongly supported the idea). The prospect of joining Hugh Wallace at his old alma mater proved irresistible. It was, however, a turn of events which profoundly upset Sir Archibald Gray [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.206], the power behind the throne at the Institute. Gray felt that Wells had let him down by even considering another post, notwithstanding it was at his own medical school. In Gray’s view there would now be no question of the chair, even part time, being offered to Wells, and Charles Calnan was soon appointed. Thus Wells, now a consultant to St Thomas’s, continued in his laboratory at the Institute. In 1959 he was appointed a clinical consultant to St John’s.

This pattern of work suited Wells and he was to become an academic influence to generations of budding dermatologists, indeed he stimulated many to explore wider fields. He spent his time between St John’s and St Thomas’s. Private practice did not appeal and administration was kept to a minimum. No extrovert, he seemed ill at ease in the hurly burly of confrontations, medical or political. This private person at times gave an impression of tortured anguish, for which the quiet atmosphere of his own laboratory was to provide him space.

At meetings he was a reluctant speaker, nevertheless when he did, his views were always respected. He gave the Parkes-Weber lecture at the College of Physicians in 1961. Skin disorders associated with malabsorption was based on studies he made at St Thomas’s with the gastroenterologists and was published in the BMJ (1962,ii,937-43). With his mentor, Geoffrey Dowling, he was responsible for the skin section in many editions of Conybeare’s admirable textbook of medicine.

His name is associated with a somewhat esoteric entity - eosinophilic cellulitis, now known as Wells’ syndrome. The colourful term ‘flame figures’ that he used for the characteristic clusters of eosinophils and histocytes which surround pink collagenous debris has become the hallmark of this rare but distinctive process.

He married Margaret (Maggie) Bruce in 1951. A talented artist and somewhat his senior, they first met on a skiing holiday in Verbier. Throughout the years they remained devoted and, though childless, rejoiced in many nephews and nieces, some of whom were later to share their Suffolk home. They were keen travellers and both had been competent skiers. In the 1960s they acquired an apartment in a small Swiss resort near Montana, which they would visit twice a year. It was also generously lent to various lucky relations and friends.

George was musical and enjoyed his Spanish guitar. He would pick it up at any odd moment to study and practise. Maggie pursued her sketching, painting and particularly her superb wood block work, many examples of which were to be seen in their old home and on the walls of fortunate relations and friends. They shared a private sense of humour, each seeming to catalyze the other in a quiet, somewhat secret way.

In London they lived in Hereford Square and, on retirement, moved to Suffolk. There they became enthusiastic gardeners.

In spite of vigorous swimming George was to become progressively wracked with arthritis and, with heart function past its prime, knee replacement was hardly an option. He died within six weeks of his wife; without her any point in surviving had evaporated.

Stephen C Gold

(Volume XI, page 609)

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