Lives of the fellows

Robert Hayden Ellis

b.16 March 1921 d.17 June 2005
MB BChir Cantab(1945) MRCP(1949) MD(1952) FRCP(1973)

Bob Ellis was appointed, at the age of 32, as consultant physician in chest diseases to the north Gloucestershire clinical area of the South West Regional Hospital Board, comprising Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stroud, Cirencester, Tewkesbury and the Forest of Dean. He was, at the time, the youngest consultant ever appointed there. Bob was born into three generations of doctors and was always fascinated by the picture on the wall of his grandfather's surgery in the Fen Country, a print of 'The doctor', by Sir Luke Fildes. These circumstances directed him towards medicine from an early age. He was educated at St Faith's School, Cambridge, Marlborough College, St Catherine's College, Cambridge, and St Bartholomew's Hospital, London.

In 1945 he married the love of his life, Esme Davies, a Bart's nurse, the Swansea-born daughter of two Welsh school headteachers, and later a social worker.

After house appointments, he entered the medical branch of the Royal Air Force and served from 1946 to 1948. There followed house physician and registrar posts at Bart's, the Brompton, West Middlesex Hospital and London Chest Hospitals. He proceeded MD in 1952 with a thesis on systolic murmurs in pregnancy. Whilst at the London Chest, he heard that Frank Knights [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.324], the chest physician from Gloucester, was visiting the pathology laboratory. He contrived a meeting and told Knights how interested he was that a job might be coming up at Gloucester, which surprised Knights, as the decision to advertise a new post had only just been made. Bob did not actually know anything about a job, but fancied a move to the West Country and thought he would chance his arm. The two men got on well and Bob was duly appointed.

At the time of Bob's arrival in Goucester pulmonary tuberculosis was still a major problem - there were, in the mid-forties, still over 60,000 deaths annually countrywide. Bob and Frank Knights worked steadily towards its ultimate control, which was largely achieved by the early seventies, as a result of improved living conditions, chemotherapy (streptomycin, PAS and isoniazid were available from the late forties and early fifties), and the development of surgical resection, replacing the various often brutal forms of collapse therapy and lengthy sanatorium stays.

Bob was responsible for introducing bronchoscopy (previously only available in large centres such as Bristol and Birmingham) to Gloucester and, with Frank Knights, the gradual conversion of Standish Hospital, a large sanatorium for tuberculosis, to a centre for the investigation and treatment of general chest disease. This included the setting up of an early-day physiological measurement department for lung function, offering ventilation and flow rate assessment, diffusing capacity, gas transfer and blood gas analysis.

Bob developed special interests in pneumoconiosis, which was plentiful in the old coalminers of the Forest of Dean, and pulmonary aspergillosis, being the first to describe total collapse of the lung in that disease. He published papers on these conditions and was elected a member of the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel.

Following the creation of an embryo post-graduate medical centre in Gloucester in the mid-sixties, Bob became its second clinical tutor and saw it move forward toward premises of its own, widening its scope of interest and tapping resources from further afield for lectures and the general activities of a thriving medical club. Other offices held included the chair of the Standish medical staff committee and presidency of the West Country Chest Society. He was a member of the Thoracic Society and the British Medical Association, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Later in his career he pursued an earlier interest in life insurance medicine and became consultant medical officer to Mercantile & General Reinsurance Company, Allied Dunbar Life Insurance Company, Imperial Life of Canada (later Lincoln Assurance) and Employers Reinsurance, appointments with which he continued after retirement from the NHS in 1986. In private practice he started up, from scratch, and developed the health check scheme run by the Cotswold Nuffield Hospital in Cheltenham.

Bob had a lifelong interest in sport. He won a hockey blue at Cambridge and was particularly pleased when the Hawks Club recently changed its rules to allow wartime blues to join. He played squash for his college and was an excellent tennis player, on one occasion turning up for the Cambridgeshire junior doubles competition without a partner, forming a scratch pairing with a complete stranger and then winning the tournament. He continued to play tennis regularly until he was nearly 80 years old.

His over-riding passion, however, was for cricket. He represented his schools, his college, Crusaders CC, and later Bart's Hospital and United Hospitals. He continued to play club cricket for many years and was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club. He disliked modern pyjama-clad limited-overs cricket, but did not miss a Lord's test from 1948 until his death.

Bob always maintained that any success in his life was likely to be due to having a sense of humour - with him there was always a laugh in prospect - and the luck of his birth, his marriage, especially, and the family it gave him, and being in the right place at the right time - never because he was the best. Many friends and colleagues would feel that he underestimated himself here, for he was a very wise physician with an excellent grasp of the fundamentals.

Esme died in 1995, of cerebrovascular disease, after a two-year illness. He found life without her to be a struggle, but continued to travel the world, as they had done together for many years. He even undertook a circumnavigation in a cargo boat, and wrote a book about it. He felt that he owed it to his family to keep going, which he did, until he developed a carcinoma of the pancreas, which, after a short illness, eventually led to his death. He leaves a son, a consultant physician and Fellow of the College, and twin daughters, one a physiotherapist, the other a consultant educational psychologist.

W R Ellis

(Volume XII, page web)

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