Lives of the fellows

Percy Ellis Thompson Hancock

b.4 February 1904 d.12 January 2004
MRCS LRCP(1927) BChir Cantab(1930) MRCP(1931) MB(1937) FRCP(1944)

Percy Thompson Hancock, known to many of his friends as 'Cocker', trained at Bart's and went on to be consultant physician at the Royal Free Hospital and Royal Marsden Hospital. It was at the Marsden where he devoted most of his time for over 30 years and the hospital owes much to his foresight in the 1950s and 1960s, when the NHS was introduced and chemotherapy emerged as a new treatment for cancer.

The eldest of five sons, his father, Frank Hancock, was in general practice in Hampshire, having come over from the Argentine to become a vet. In order to marry Ethel Ellis, her parents would only agree if he became a doctor as this, to them, would then be socially acceptable. So he went to Bart's to qualify and be married. Percy went to Wellington College and thence to Caius College, Cambridge and on to Bart's.

After qualifying in 1927, he stayed at Bart's, first as house physician, and later, as chief assistant to Lord Horder, the first physician appointed to the Marsden in 1908.

In the 1930s, before the war, Percy began his private practice at 47 Queen Anne Street, moving later to 73 Harley Street. In 1934, he went to visit Rudolf Schindler in Germany to see his latest gastroscope. He was not put off by Lord Horder's pronouncement that "gastroscopy was repugnant to the English character". This new instrument was now flexible at the lower end and so increased greatly the field of vision. It, in fact, held sway until the fully flexible fibreoptic gastroscope arrived in 1957. Percy had to leave after only two attempts at using it because Schindler, being Jewish, was about to betrayed to the Gestapo. On returning to Bart's, he introduced it just after Harold Rodgers had done so. He went on to become consultant gastroscopist at Queen Mary's Hospital Roehampton. He recognised its value in cancer diagnosis, trying suction before the days of forceps for biopsy. He met Schindler again in 1957 in Chicago whence he had emigrated and Percy was made an honorary member of the American Gastroscopy Society. In 1938 he made an extensive lecture tour all over America and stayed with the Mayo brothers whose father had formed the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

During the war, Percy remained in England in the Emergency Medical Service. The London Blitz caused him to move his wife 'Blue' and two young daughters, Judith and Caroline, to a rented home in Ashwell, Hertfordshire. In addition to his appointments as assistant physician to the Royal Free and Royal Cancer (Free) and the National Temperance Hospital, he now took on the hospitals at Hitchin, Stevenage (the Lister), Potters Bar, and Bishop's Stortford.

Once war was over, the next 20 years saw Percy more and more involved with the Royal Cancer Hospital which eventually, in 1954, changed its name to the Royal Marsden. He was now a Fellow of the College and in 1948 on the consultant staff - as he was also at the Royal Free Hospital. The new treatment of chemotherapy being developed was more medical and attracted him as a clinician. In particular, he concentrated on lymphoma, leukaemia and polycythaemia. He was involved with reverse barrier nursing for leukaemia patients down at Sutton and in the trials of radioactive phosphorus for polycythaemia. He published papers and lectured all over the world. He toured America, Canada, South America, Russia, Iraq, and Israel where he visited Thomas Hodgkin's neglected grave in Jaffa and represented the College of Physicians there in 1966 at a symposium celebrating the anniversary of his death. Afterwards he gave the Fitzpatrick lecture at the College on Thomas Hodgkin's life.

As senior consultant physician, he played a crucial role in maintaining a balance between the members of staff, each clamouring for position - radiotherapists, surgeons, pathologists and scientists. He achieved this by not dominating, but adopting a diplomatic and more modest role, reflecting his own true nature. He accepted, possibly reluctantly, the offer to become the first director of clinical research at the hospital. He was very successful in raising funds for it to operate. Young clinicians wanting to do research felt they could go to Uncle Percy for he would find the money for them. He set up the first well woman clinic for breast cancer, ably supported by his second wife, Laurie, in charge of fashion at Harrods, who sent along her buyers for check-ups.

Recollections from his time at the Marsden portrays Percy as always courteous, approachable, and caring of both staff and patients. Tall and good looking, he was always elegant and immaculate in his dress. When the hospital stopped giving special dinners for the junior staff, Percy invited them instead to his home to continue the custom. Once at a medical committee meeting, an ashen-faced radiotherapist arrived and owned up to Percy that he had crashed his new automatic into the back of his Rolls. "Don't worry, old chap," said Percy, "I'll ask my chauffeur to collect the other one." Of course, he was shooting a line because the "other one" was very old and actually belonged to his wife, who had inherited it from her mother.

Amongst his other activities, he represented the College on the committee of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. He persuaded them to finance a chair of medicine at the Marsden, the first in the country. At the Royal Free, as well as consultant physician, he was senior medical examiner at the University of London. Also he became president of the Leukaemia Society and of the oncology section of the Royal Society of Medicine, and, of course, there was his private practice in Harley Street.

Of his other interests, he played tennis at Caius and Bart's. His pedigree herd of Ayrshire cattle helped him win the National Milk Challenge Trophy in 1952.

Percy retired from practice during the 1970s living in his mews house in Wigmore Place. He maintained his connection with Bart's through the Fountain Club, of which his father was a founder member in 1919. Percy had joined in 1927, becoming master in 1960. He attended dinners regularly, well into his nineties, contributing with his wit and sound common sense. He suffered severe sight loss from macular degeneration and after his second wife, Laurie, died in 1999, he moved down to Somerset to live with his daughter, Judith, and her husband, Richard, where he died three and a half years later, less than a month before his 100th birthday.

Trevor Hudson

(Volume XI, page 240)

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