Lives of the fellows

Richard Bonar McConnell

b.21 January 1920 d.21 October 2003
TD(1963) MB ChB Liverpool(1942) MRCP(1949) MD(1955) FRCP(1967)

Richard Bonar McConnell was the father of Liverpool gastroenterology, acknowledged when in 1983 the British Society of Gastroenterology met in Liverpool under his presidency. But there were no 'specialists' in the current sense when Richard started out his career; he took on the emerging specialty at a time when Cyril Clarke [Munk's Roll, Vol.XI, web] ran the department of medicine at the University of Liverpool and the different disciplines were just emerging. Ronnie Finn took on nephrology, John Woodrow, rheumatology, and Richard, gastroenterology. He must have been one of the first physicians to set up a joint medical-surgical gastro-intestinal clinic with his colleague and great friend Robert Shields, professor of surgery. There was sometimes more talking than consulting, but he and Robert were always available to advise the juniors who flocked to learn in the first dedicated GI unit in the country.

Richard was born in Liverpool, the son of a GP, Alfred Joseph McConnell. His schooling in Liverpool, at St Christopher's and later Liverpool College, was interrupted for a year when his father died of septicaemia. His mother took him back to Port Stewart, in Northern Ireland, where she and Richard's father originated. This left him with a love of golf and of the province of Ulster, and he valued the Irish connections of Liverpool. He was all of 16 years of age when he entered Liverpool Medical School. His medical studies were accelerated by the onset of war, and senior students took on responsibilities that would shock modern deans. In 1940, he and many others at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary survived a bomb that passed right through the building, before lodging in the basement unexploded. As soon as he qualified he became senior casualty officer at the Infirmary, before volunteering for the Royal Air Force. Although he had to deal with, in his own words, "a fair amount of grizzly work", he enjoyed the camaraderie of military service (and joined the Territorial Army after the war). He served mainly in Algeria and then Italy, reached the rank of squadron leader and was, for a few days, in sole charge of Venice (or so he claimed).

He returned to Liverpool, where he was to remain for the rest of his professional career, as house physician to the David Lewis Northern Hospital. Registrar and senior registrar posts followed, until he became a consultant physician at the age of 35. As in many cities, there was a plethora of small hospitals, and Richard was on the staff of the Stanley, Broadgreen and Northern Hospitals, as well as the Royal Infirmary. In 1978, some rationalisation was brought about by the opening of the Royal Liverpool Hospital, conceived while Richard was still at school, but with an inordinately long gestation. Indeed the 'final delivery' owed much to Richard's administrative skills, and he was a key member of a small team that commissioned the 'new Royal' (it is still called the new Royal by most Liverpudlians, although there are already plans to knock it down and replace it). But it was Broadgreen where his heart really lay; because it was there that he developed one of the first and finest dedicated gastro-intestinal units in the country. A surgical colleague smuggled the country's first semiflexible gastroscope from the United States down the leg of his trousers and all was set fair for pioneering work.

It is for his contribution to research that Richard will be particularly remembered internationally, though few may realise that his first publication, in The Lancet in 1952, was on the link between smoking and lung cancer. His MD was on the link between disease and blood groups, and he extended this to work later on the genetics of ABO inheritance. He would often remark, with a twinkle in his eye for which he was famous, that the main finding of his study was that nearly one in five Liverpool children had a biological father different from the dad at home. He made the field of genetics of gastrointestinal disorders his own, and this was the title of his first of five books (Oxford University Press, 1966). One of his most fruitful and lifelong collaborations was with Victor of McKusick at the Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, and many of his protégés spent time with Victor.

Other distinctions are too numerous to mention, but he was proud to be a member and, in 1985, president of the Liverpool Medical Institution. His inaugural address entitled 'In arduis fidelis' was an amusing and painstakingly researched history of the 8th Liverpool General Hospital, where he attained the rank of colonel and was awarded the Territorial Distinction in 1963. For the College he was regional adviser from 1970 to 1974.

Richard's presidency of the British Society of Gastroenterology in 1983 was nearly cut short. After lecturing to the Belgian national GI society, he sat down and commented to Hermon Dowling how interesting it was that heartburn could radiate to the jaw. Hermon suspected that it didn't, and arranged for his prompt transfer to the local hospital, where Richard was found to have sustained a substantial myocardial infarct. Fortunately, he did extremely well, and his ischaemic heart disease did not catch up with him for a further 20 years. When it did, he bore it with the same endearing qualities that typified his life - with generosity and equanimity. He would always ask after the visitor and their family, and would never complain of his own problems. And he never lost the twinkle in his eye and a love of the risqué comment. It was a privilege to visit him only the day before he died, and he commented, "If this is dying, then it's not that bad!" He leaves his wife, Gwenllian, a medical artist, and three children, one of whom is a consultant physician in Dorset.

Ian Gilmore

[Brit.med.J., 2004,328,111]

(Volume XI, page 359)

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