Lives of the fellows

Victor Cornelius Medvei

b.6 June 1905 d.18 Oct 2000
CBE(1965) MD Vienna(1930) MRCS LRCP(1941) MRCP(1943) FRCP(1965)

Cornelius Medvei was a gentle gracious man of charm, wit, great intelligence and learning - not just of medicine but of letters, literature and, above all, history. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he developed and expanded the powerful medical service of the foreign and commonwealth office but never lost his love of endocrinology and medical history, or his gratitude to Great Britain.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary, and was an only child. His mother died when he was only four years old. He was then brought up by a greatly admired Austrian aunt in Vienna. Thus his early education was in the classic Viennese tradition of languages, history, Latin and Greek, which he enjoyed greatly then and forever.

He had determined to study medicine at the age of four when admitted to hospital with scarlet fever. He entered medical school in Vienna, qualifying in 1930. Vienna in the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s was a seething hothouse of intellectual excellence. The vital influences of music and art, pure science and medicine intermingled vibrantly and provided him with a wonderful environment in which to live. He was influenced by the outstanding medical men of Vienna in the early 1930s, including Freud. His major medical patron and boss was the great Julius Bauer, professor extraordinary in medicine at the University of Vienna, whose special interests were genetics and endocrinology, then a newly emerging speciality.

Bauer was a driving force in Viennese medicine, but also was an outspoken opponent of the growing Nazi National Socialist Party. He was therefore on the Nazis' blacklist, particularly because of his outspoken opposition to the National Socialists' policy of euthanasia and the cold-blooded, planned killing of mentally defective and otherwise incurable people.

Cornelius admired Bauer greatly, becoming his chief assistant. He also admired and fell in love with Paula Jokl, Bauer's senior biochemist who ran his research laboratory. By 1934 they wanted to marry but this was opposed by the director of the polyklinik, a rigid surgeon who believed that members of staff should not intermarry. With the intervention of Bauer the required resignation of one or other of the engaged couple was waived. They had a daughter, Riccarda, who to his later delight became a specialist in diabetes.

This vibrant intellectual and medical world of Vienna fell apart when Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Those on the blacklist were denounced and then sacked and arrested. Positions of power were given to members of the Nazi Party. The intellectual greatness of Vienna was destroyed. Many perished but some escaped, including Bauer.

Cornelius's name was on the blacklist - after all he had worked for the hated Bauer, he was a member of the monarchist party and there was some Jewish blood in his family. He tried to obtain a visa to escape. He queued for days at the British consulate but those who came to the front of the queue were prevented from reaching the office by the Nazi officers who collected the limited number of documents available in order to sell them on the black market. Eventually the British vice-consul realised what was happening and came out to distribute the documents to those at the back of the queue. Cornelius managed to escape eventually, helped, ironically, by a letter from a surprisingly sympathetic younger brother of Hermann Goering, whose wife had been cared for by Bauer. Cornelius also had visas for his wife and daughter but his wife would not leave. She divorced him soon after he left Vienna to protect her position. To Cornelius's joy, Riccarda, his daughter, made contact later and they were then in constant touch.

Cornelius had looked after the wife of an influential British doctor from St. Thomas' Hospital, Malcolm Young, when they were visiting Vienna. Malcolm Young put Cornelius's name to the committee in London which had been set up to select 50 Austrian doctors to come to Britain to restudy medicine and settle. He arrived in London aged 32, stayed with Malcolm Young and applied to a number of London medical schools for admission as a student. He had to re-qualify of course.

The first medical school to reply was Bart's, offering an interview with the then Dean, Sir William Girling Ball, who declared him to be a 'Bart's man', shook his hand and gave him a scholarship. He became a student again attached to the medical professorial unit. He managed to avoid internment when war was declared, but had to move to the Chelsea Hospital for Women because injured military personnel were admitted to Bart's and it was not deemed 'safe' to have an alien from an enemy country in the hospital.

After qualifying in 1941, he worked in the Metropolitan Hospital in Kingsland Road as a house physician. His boss, Jack Linnell [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.294], was interested in the thyroid and therefore knew Patrick Spence, who had set up an endocrine clinic at Bart's before the war. Linnell arranged for Cornelius to attend the Saturday morning endocrine clinic. When Spence was called up into the army, Cornelius was asked to run the endocrine clinic until the end of the war and he remained in the clinic thereafter. At the same time Cornelius was asked to help in the medical service of the post office, the oldest occupational health service in Britain.

After the war he was made senior medical officer to the post office, but was soon transferred to the medical service of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After only two further years there he was made principal medical officer in charge at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a post he kept until he retired in 1970, developing and expanding it to become a department of great influence. Despite these duties he retained his appointment to the endocrine clinic at Bart's and also to the bronchitis clinic at the Brompton Hospital. He received a CBE in 1965.

As principal medical Officer to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he was responsible for the health and most of the welfare of all the members of the British diplomatic corps and their families, at all levels around the world, and in some areas local medical services were inadequate. Not surprisingly he became very influential and greatly admired and respected.

In the early 1980s he was sent by the Wellcome Trust to review the arrangements for the co-ordination of the exchange of young doctors of registrar level between France and Great Britain and to report on conditions of medical centres all over France, including the INSERM research centres. For his service he was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite by the French President.

What of his personal life after his arrival in London? He was somewhat older than his fellow students, but fenced and ice skated with them. He coyly admitted that, much to his delight, there were more young women nurses than male students in the student groups then.

While a student at the Chelsea Hospital for Women, he met and fell in love with a junior theatre nurse, Sheila Wiggins, whom he married in 1946. They made a wonderful couple and she provided joy and support for him throughout their marriage. They had two children - Victoria, an ex-Bart's nurse and 'young' Cornelius, a solicitor. Theirs was the closest possible friendship and love and he declared that he was blissfully happy throughout the 43 years of their marriage. He was devastated by her death in 1989 and at the time he simply wanted to join her.

Apart from his scientific work, he was a man of letters - writing poetry in three languages. He was president of the section for the history of medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1986 to 1987, treasurer of the Harveian Society in 1963, and a well respected historian in his own right. He was an antique collector especially of silver, founding the Society of Silver Collectors, later known as the Silver Society, in 1958.

He was a true Bart's man and his loyalty was amazing. Despite his vast other responsibilities and interests he never failed to come to Barts. In 1980 it was realised that he was still holding a senior registrar appointment to the endocrine clinic at the age of 75! Reluctantly he stood down but then regularly attended the weekly case conference where all the in-patients were discussed - and did so until he died at the age of 95. The members of the department loved seeing him at the rounds, bright as a button, insisting on being involved and asking relevant and incisive questions to the end, despite his increasing physical frailty. On his retirement from the endocrine clinic aged 75, he asked for research projects to do in endocrinology. He rapidly dealt with the first two or three he was offered and asked for more.

He had published the definitive history of Bart's with the Bart's librarian for the 850th anniversary of the hospital (The Royal Hospital of Saint Bartholomew's 1123-1973 London, 1974). It was therefore suggested that he should write a history of endocrinology, thinking that it would keep him happily occupied for a very long time, and it did. The first edition appeared in 1982 (Lancaster, MTP) and was a very great success and enthusiastically received around the world. It became the definitive reference work leading to a second larger edition in 1993. At his death he was working on a third edition!

Cornelius Medvei was a man of high intellect, integrity and devotion to medicine. Despite the horrors of his experiences before the war, he was without bitterness, charming and gentle, but tough, and determined enough to forge his important place in British medicine despite it all. A family man, proud of his children and many grand and great grandchildren, a man of erudition and letters, a classicist and historian of renown.

G M Besser

(Volume XI, page 389)

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