Lives of the fellows

Stewart Renfrew

b.30 April 1917 d.28 December 2002
BSc Glasg(1937) MB ChB(1940) MRCP(1945) FRCP(1967)

Born and brought up in Scotland’s most ancient Royal Burgh, Rutherglen, on the south east side of the city of Glasgow, Stewart Renfrew was educated at Rutherglen Academy and the University of Glasgow, graduating in science in 1937 and in medicine in 1940. Service in the RAMC followed from 1941 until 1946, with duties in India and then in Scottish command, where he was graded as a medical specialist. Under special regulations he passed the membership examination of the College while in India in 1945, and was elected to the Fellowship in 1967.

Returning to the UK in 1946, he declared his neurological interests by his appointment as house surgeon in the neurosurgical unit at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, and then by training in neurology as clinical clerk at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London from 1947 until 1949. At the time such early specialisation was unusual. In 1949 he was appointed senior registrar in neurology in the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and later in 1952 became the Royal Infirmary’s first ever consultant neurologist.

From 1949 until his retirement in 1982, he maintained the clinical service for neurology in the Royal Infirmary and its associated hospitals and continued an association with the West of Scotland neurosurgical service, based at Killearn Hospital to the north of Glasgow. In the early years there were but three neurologists caring for the entire west of Scotland population, some three million people. The service was almost entirely clinical. The radiology of the brain was in the hands of the neurosurgeons, but Renfrew established the electroencephalographic department in the Royal Infirmary with two particularly gifted technical assistants with whom several research projects were undertaken.

Stewart Renfrew worked wholly for the National Health Service. He had no interest in private consulting practice, and was always disinclined to be involved with medico-legal work. Throughout his years he introduced many younger colleagues to neurological practice and to research methods, and several of his students went on to consultant appointments.

Renfrew was a quiet man, of a scholarly mien, and with a deeply reflective nature. One of his parallel interests was in mechanical engineering (his father had been a production engineer) and in his home workshop he made many of the instruments used in his research. Thus he introduced a ruler for the measurement of EEG and ECG frequencies, and a series of aesthesiometers for his various discriminative tests of cutaneous sensation. The publication of his article on the somatic sense of space in Brain 1960 was the culmination of many months of testing of volunteer subjects, students and staff (presumed healthy) in the hospital. After the sessions of testing, often in the evenings when the clinics were over, there would be time for a pipe or a cigarette, or for a beer, and time for much discussion on the work, on the patients, on the methods, on the teaching and on the attitudes of doctors to patients and citizens.

Renfrew had a long-lasting concern about the teaching of clinical neurology and about the reaction of so many students who seemed lost in its apparent mystique. In 1962 he published An introduction to diagnostic neurology: a course of instruction for students (Edinburgh and London, E & S Livingstone) designed for students, in which he summarised the various long tract and segmental signs of diseases of the cord and of the brain, and outlined his methods of clinical examination. He prefaced each of the three volumes with chapters on “the language of empirical science” in the hope that the student would be able to read medical articles more critically and analytically. The second edition followed in 1967.

As was the custom in the early days of the NHS neurology service, Stewart Renfew worked in a kind of splendid isolation, being called to see an endless stream of patients who were under the care of other physicians and surgeons. Only after his consultant appointment in 1962 did he have claim to a small number of beds, but he continued to be dependent on the junior staff of the other medical firms. His gentlemanly manner was such that he could not or would not tackle the medical politics of the system by which the “chief” seemed to exercise complete control. The subsequent “divisional” system made the administrative arrangements easier for him.

Sixteen publications are listed to his credit, the majority with multiple authorship, many relating to the EEG, and several to clinical sensory testing. The width and breadth of the subject matter are a good representation of the man himself. He was predeceased by his wife, Edna. He is survived by his two daughters. He enjoyed the creativity of his engineering workshop, he enjoyed his violin, and later in his life when he retired to live in the Scottish Borders he enjoyed golf and the companionship of the bowling club.

Ian D Melville

(Volume XI, page 477)

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