Lives of the fellows

Dion Ralph Bell

b.7 May 1931 d.3 February 2005
MB ChB Leeds(1954) MRCP(1958) DTM&H Liverp(1959) MFCM(1972) FRCP(1974)

Dion Bell, a reader at the Liverpool School of Tropical medicine, will be remembered fondly and with great respect by generations of students, patients and junior doctors. He was a gifted teacher of tropical medicine, and a kind and caring clinician.

Dion was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, the son of a mineral water manufacturer, and he retained his gritty Yorkshire pragmatism and common sense throughout his future travels. He did well at school and went to the Leeds Medical School, from where he graduated with honours in 1954. After house officer posts he undertook national service with the RAMC in Ghana. He hugely enjoyed this, and was permanently bitten by the 'bug' of Africa and tropical medicine. In late 1957 he returned to Leeds and worked as medical registrar to Sir Ronald Tunbridge [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.513]. Over the next three years he also obtained the MRCP and the Liverpool DTM&H, and in 1960 was ready to return to the tropics and begin his career in tropical medicine.

Over the next four years he worked in Nigeria, Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and developed a special interest in schistosomiasis. In 1964 he returned to the UK as senior lecturer in tropical medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. From then until his retirement in 1991, his contribution to tropical medicine was remarkable. He became a gifted educator and writer, a respected clinically-based researcher, and probably the last of the truly great tropical clinicians. His expertise was widely recognised and he was a frequent adviser to various bodies, including the World Health Organization, the UK Overseas Development Administration, the Public Health Laboratory Service, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Dion was a natural teacher, and his lectures on the DTM&H course, as well as at grand rounds at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, were inspirational. He was something of a showman, and would on occasions construct giant polystyrene models of parasites to demonstrate, for example, the flagellae of Giardia lamblia, or the genital apparatus of schistosomes. He became an international expert in schistosomiasis, and one of his most remarkable experiments was to construct an array of glassware which mimicked the biliary tree, in the midst of which a pair of copulating adult schistosomes were observed under varying conditions.

Probably Dion's major and most lasting achievement was the book Lecture notes on tropical medicine (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1981), now in its fifth edition. He wrote the first three editions single-handedly, as well as most of the fourth edition. The current edition, appearing during his retirement, was edited by Geoff Gill and Nick Beeching. Lecture notes remains a best-seller, and has become a 'bible' for all aspiring tropical doctors.

Another major contribution was to the care of ex-Far East prisoners of war, many of whom had been imprisoned on the infamous Thai-Burma railway from 1942 to 1945. Over 2,000 of these men have attended the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine for tropical disease screening and pension assessments. The vast majority were seen by Dion personally, and he would spend at least an hour with each one at their initial visit. Many of them retold horrific past experiences for the first time in years. He championed their fight for war pensions, and undertook high-quality research on the health effects of imprisonment. His work in particular highlighted the high frequency of chronic Strongyloides stercoralis infection in these men.

Socially, Dion was, not surprisingly, excellent company. For many years, afternoon tea in the department of tropical medicine was well attended entirely because of his wit and story telling. A visit to his house was always memorable. He had a shooting gallery in the cellar for many years, and also had an affection for firework displays.

Dion became a reader in tropical medicine in 1982, nine years before he retired back to his beloved Yorkshire. It was a travesty of academic justice that he was never made a professor. However, he leaves a lasting legacy in tropical medicine. Throughout the world there are a number of senior specialists in tropical medicine (known affectionately as 'Dion's Boys') who would not have followed this career path without his influence and inspiration.

Geoff Gill

[Brit.med.J., 2005 330 1153]

(Volume XII, page web)

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