Lives of the fellows

Frank Ellis

b.22 August 1905 d.3 February 2006
OBE(2000) BSc Sheffield(1927) MSc(1928) MB ChB(1929) DMR(1933) FFR(1937) FRCF(1938) MD(1944) MRCP(1959) FRCP(1968) Hon FACR(1977) Hon FIPSM(1988) Hon DSc Ohio(1993) Hon DSc Sheffield(2005)

Frank Ellis died in Oxford well into his 101st year, challenging the world around him to his last days of life. During an active career of more than 70 years he did much to take radiotherapy from the early years of empiricism to its structured and accurate use today. He founded the radiotherapy departments at Sheffield, the Royal London Hospital and Oxford, and by his drive and vision established all of them as thriving centres for cancer treatment, research and training.

Frank Ellis was born in Sheffield, where his parents were chapel keepers and his father a silversmith. He was determined to be a doctor from the age of five, and won a scholarship worth £5 per annum to King Edward VII Grammar School. In 1929 he qualified through Sheffield Medical School, where he was house physician to Sir Arthur Hall [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.461]. A year later he was appointed the first radium officer to the Royal Hospital. Here in 1935 he was the first to devise wedge-shaped filters which, when placed in a radiation beam, allowed the beam to be angled to avoid sensitive normal structures. They are an essential part of all modern radiotherapy units today. During the war, concerned that bombing might not only interfere with his patients’ treatment but also risk radioactive contamination, he hired a furniture van and moved his whole department, including the radium, out of Sheffield to a safer location. In those days, direct action was the best way to succeed.

In 1943 Ellis moved to the London Hospital, and in 1950 to Oxford, where at the Churchill Hospital – in huts recently vacated by US armed forces – he at once embarked upon the design and construction of the first telecobalt unit, which, although very heavy because of its lead shielding, was capable of both vertical and angular movement. In this he secured the help of H C Husband, the designer of the Jodrell Bank Observatory. This equipment treated patients very effectively for 25 years, and was then given to the Science Museum.

During his years at Oxford, Frank Ellis collected around him a group of enterprising young trainees, who under his guidance were to contribute hugely to the understanding of the physical and biological basis of radiation therapy. Several went on to head units of renown in the UK and abroad.

Another of his important developments at Oxford was the replacement of radium – a hazardous material – with newer alternatives then becoming available. This had great benefits for patients and staff, and also allowed him to pursue the combination of operative surgery with radiotherapy, which he developed further in his career in the USA. At Oxford too he established clinics in the surrounding towns, so saving many patients from travelling to Oxford. He also set up the Oxford Cancer Registry.

In 1970 his retirement from Oxford and the NHS at 65 came when his standing in his field was very high due to his success in combining his clinical experience with radiobiology to develop the concept of nominal standard dose. This gave a basis for comparison of different radiation dosage patterns in different centres, and generated worldwide acclaim. It led naturally to visiting professorial appointments lasting in total for ten years at several centres in the USA, concluding with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York.

He was a strong Quaker, who took an active part in meetings even in his 100th year. Throughout his life he believed keenly in progress through reasoned argument. He considered the NHS a triumph of national policy, and he was a very strong supporter of the peace movement. He married his wife Dorothy in 1932. She died in 1990. He was very proud of his family, his five children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Three are doctors.

Frank Ellis was one-time president of the British Institute of Radiology. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal College of Radiologists. He received an OBE in the Millennium New Year Honours for his contributions to cancer services over much of the 20th century. In his 100th year, Sheffield University awarded him an honorary DSc which he received in person.

To him, every patient was a new challenge to improve upon his previous treatments. This did not always find favour with colleagues, who preferred the security of standard protocols. But it motivated his trainees and achieved excellent results for many. When at medical school, Frank was known as ‘Tiger Ellis’, a nickname which sums up his energy, drive and knack for inspiring those who worked with him.

Sir Christopher Paine

[References:The Lancet2006,367,1050; The Guardian 20 February 2006; The Times 24 February 2006; The Independent 25 February 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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