Lives of the fellows

James Abraham Edward Ambrose

b.5 April 1923 d.12 March 2006
MB ChB Cape Town(1952) DMRD(1956) FFR(1959) FRCP(1977) FRACR(1986)

James (‘Jamie’) Ambrose was already a distinguished neuroradiologist when, on 1 October 1971, he performed a world first – a computed tomography scan of the human brain. The performance of this scan at the Atkinson Morley Hospital, Wimbledon, came about because of the joint collaboration of Jamie with Godfrey Hounsfield, an electronic engineer who in 1979 was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine.

Jamie was born in South Africa. Initially he studied engineering until his 18th birthday, when he volunteered to become a pilot in the South African Air Force. From 1941 to 1945 he flew Spitfires with the Royal Air Force, in the Middle East, Italy and southern France.

After the war Jamie took up medicine at Cape Town University and graduated in 1952. He went to England in 1954, first as a radiological trainee at the Middlesex Hospital and then as a senior registrar at Guy’s Hospital.

His love of neuroradiology inevitably led him to Atkinson Morley Hospital in 1959, initially as a senior registrar. From 1962 until his retirement he was a consultant neuroradiologist. The neurosurgical unit was headed by Sir Wylie McKissock and was one of the busiest in the world, with an enormous throughput of neurosurgical cases. In the sixties neuroradiological investigations consisted of ventriculography and percutaneous angiography and during that time Jamie performed most of these procedures himself. Consequently Jamie was in the hospital most of the time, a valuable source of information for many junior (and senior) medical staff. His clinical knowledge was as good as his radiological opinion, so no treatment took place until Jamie had been consulted.

Neurosurgery at the hospital in the sixties and seventies was hectic, with patients arriving at all hours from most parts of southern England. Jamie was concerned about the invasive nature of the radiological investigations and the discomfort caused to the patient. Consequently Jamie began to use and develop less invasive neuroradiological procedures, mainly ultrasound and radioisotope scans. It was clear however that these were not going to give the answer to the many neurological problems seen at the hospital. Fortuitously, the Department of Health asked Jamie to meet Godfrey Hounsfield, whose ideas had already been rejected by one eminent radiologist. The rest, as they say, is history. Jamie immediately realised the potential of these groundbreaking ideas and worked with Hounsfield and a dedicated team of physicists and engineers from 1969 to 1971 to produce the first prototype scanner. The original prototype is now on display at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London.

In April 1972 Jamie and Hounsfield presented the first papers on CT scanning at the annual congress of the British Institute of Radiology and in November 1972 the Radiological Society of North America heard Jamie’s lecture on the clinical trials performed with his CT scanner. It was received with astonishment and Jamie was given a standing ovation. Jamie subsequently went on to present many papers and lectures on CT scanning of the brain, perhaps the highlight being when he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal College of Radiologists in 1992, when he summarised the role of CT at that time.

Jamie was however much more than a distinguished neuroradiologist. He was one of the most likable, genuine persons you could ever wish to meet. Jamie was always available to chat with his friends and colleagues, not only about neuroradiology but about many other things, including the other great loves in his life, namely golf, wine and gardening. He was a keen but irregular golfer, due partly to the amount of time he spent at Atkinson Morley Hospital. He could play marvelous golf, but the irregularity of his playing made good, consistent, scores difficult. He was a modest drinker but liked good wine, particularly Claret.

Jamie not only had a keen love of gardening, but he also had enormous energy, producing flowers and vegetables in abundance in his garden in Banstead. This was achieved not only with hard work but with consummate skill, attention to detail and of course the love of doing the job properly.

In retirement he moved to Argyll, to an even bigger garden by Loch Etive. This was a more rustic area, and the garden required an enormous amount of hard work to get it into shape. Quickly, however, he had it under control, with vegetables appearing in prime condition so that meals at his house were always a great treat.

Jamie married Sheena and they had two children, a daughter who followed Jamie into medicine and a son who is a barrister.

Michael Clark

[The Times 25 April 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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