Lives of the fellows

Edward McCombie McGirr

b.15 June 1916 d.12 May 2003
CBE(1978) BSc Glasgow(1937) MB ChB(1940) FRFPS Glasgow(1947) MRCP(1948) MD(1960) MRCP Edin(1960) FRCP(1961) FRCP Edin(1962) FRCP Glasgow(1962) Hon FACP(1971) FFPHM RCP(1989) Hon DSc(1994)

Edward McCombie McGirr was Muirhead professor of medicine at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. He excelled at Hamilton Academy and in a very competitive bursary examination for entry to Glasgow University. In 1934, he enrolled in the science medicine course, graduating BSc in 1937 and MB ChB with honours in 1940.

House posts in medicine (Royal Infirmary) and surgery (Western Infirmary) were immediately followed by service in the RAMC from 1941 to 1946, largely overseas in India, Burma, Siam and Indochina. Brigadier Max Rosenheim [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.394] noted his potential, leading to promotion to specialist rank (honorary major).

After demobilisation, he joined the university department of medicine at Glasgow Royal Infirmary under Leslie Davis [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.143]. Davis had been appointed just after the war by the principal (vice-chancellor) Sir Hector Hetherington with the remit of transforming a department headed by a part-time senior physician with extensive private practice into an academic department. Davis, then a senior lecturer in medicine with Sir Stanley Davidson in Edinburgh, was appointed in 1946. He had considerable experience in laboratory disciplines (pathology and bacteriology) but relatively little in clinical medicine.

Alec McFadzean [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.310] (soon to be promoted to the chair of medicine in Hong Kong) and Edward McGirr were the first full-time appointments to the department.

Edward McGirr's personal contribution to the shaping of the new department was immense. He had attended a postgraduate course in radio-isotopes in medicine at the Hammersmith Hospital in London just after demobilisation and this provided the basis for his activities. He received useful guidance from Sam Curran (later Sir Samuel Curran FRS) a physicist who had been a member of the team that developed the original atom bomb and specific help with the provision of a Geiger counter and a supply of radioactive sodium. He initially studied the rate of absorption of sodium from peripheral ischaemic limbs with indifferent results.

Turning his attention to radioactive iodine, he made a major contribution to thyroid pathophysiology. He defined the underlying enzymatic defects causing dyshormonongenetic goitres in a West of Scotland family of itinerant tinkers who had come to the attention of J Holmes Hutchison [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.239] of Yorkhill Sick Childrens Hospital. This classic work, widely recognised and quoted, was the basis of McGirr's MD thesis which gained honours and the award of the Bellahouston medal.

McGirr succeeded Davis as Muirhead professor of medicine at the Royal Infirmary in 1961 from a strong field of candidates. He published relatively little thereafter, but proved an able leader of a group of other young academics recruited by Davis in the fifties. By that time the department, as well as fulfilling its role in providing a service in general medicine, was developing special interests in haematology (particularly coagulation disorders), nephrology, thyroid endocrinology, rheumatology and some aspects of alimentary disease. All members of the department were required to be competent in general medicine.

Training posts in the department were hotly competed for as it gave a sound basis for training in general medicine, the opportunity to see the work of several specialties and the chance to be included in some research. McGirr supervised and guided the functioning of a flourishing department with a light (but potentially firm) touch. The success of the department under McGirr's tenureship is apparent from the fact that more than 25 professorial appointments in the UK, Canada, America, Australia and other places overseas were filled by people who had been nurtured in the department at the Royal Infirmary.

Inevitably, Edward McGirr became progressively involved in the broader aspects of university activities in Glasgow and elsewhere in the UK. There was general appreciation of his ability to master a brief quickly, to make sensible assessments of core issues, and to formulate practical, realistic and balanced recommendations for progress. The old adage 'safe pair of hands' was particularly apt.

In 1968 he was appointed visitor (vice-president) of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and, from 1970 to 1972, president of the College; an appointment he privately said came too early for him at 54 years of age to be effective in UK affairs as he would have wished. Nevertheless, he was active in the introduction of the common MRCP examination, no doubt helped by being known to Max Rosenheim. He became dean of the faculty of medicine of the University of Glasgow in 1974, a post he held until his retirement in 1981.

During his deanship he introduced an undergraduate BSc course in nursing studies, a move somewhat reluctantly accepted by the Senate, which expressed doubts about the adequacy of academic content, despite the inception of a similar course in Edinburgh a year before. Other universities followed and a BSc in nursing became the norm. This was far from McGirr's concept of producing an elite corps who would guide and lead the majority of nurses trained largely by ward duties. His reservations were not made public.

He served on a wide range of advisory bodies, such as the Scottish Council for Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education, the medical sub-committee of the Universities' Grants Committee, the medical committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the General Nursing Council for Scotland, the National Radiological Protection Board and the Intercollegiate Committee on Nuclear Medicine. Other appointments included honorary consultant physician to the army in Scotland, and membership of Greater Glasgow Health Board.

Recognition of his many achievements included the awards of the CBE in 1978, an honorary DSc in 1995, fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and fellowship of the American College of Physicians.

In his retirement, Edward was generous of his time, giving valuable help to numerous voluntary bodies such as Tenovus Scotland, the St Andrews Ambulance Association and the Clyde Estuary Amenity Trust. He was a devout Christian, a regular attender at his beloved church in Bothwell, within walking distance of his home. He chaired the restoration appeal for that ancient parish church. The contribution of the distinguished physician William Cullen attracted him (he had also been educated at Hamilton Academy) and he published an account of his life.

Edward McGirr was an intellectually gifted individual, modest about his own achievements and rather shy and formal at first meeting; but to close colleagues and friends he became at ease and was a delightful companion. He read widely and thought deeply about life and its mysteries, increasingly so as he grew older. He had a happy married life with Diane (nee Woods), a vivacious physiotherapist he had met when she was bridesmaid at the marriage of her older sister, Barbara, to Robert Wilson, who had been a fellow student at Glasgow University. They married in 1949 had four children and their 11 grandchildren proved a great joy.

Diane's premature death in 1996 was a profound shock which he bore with fortitude, sustained by his deep Christian faith. His latter years were clouded by failing eyesight and increasing disability borne with great dignity.

Arthur C Kennedy

(Volume XI, page 362)

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