Lives of the fellows

Maurice Gerald Nelson

b.19 June 1914 d.4 November 2005
MB BCh BAO Belfast(1937) MD(1940) MRCP(1940) MRCPI(1946) DTM&H(1947) FRCPI(1955) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1961)

In the early sixties Gerald Nelson helped establish haematology as an independent clinical and laboratory discipline. A founder member of the British Society for Haematology in 1969, not only was he president of that society, but also of the Association of Clinical Pathologists.

He received his early education at Hipperholme Grammar School in Yorkshire and entered the medical faculty at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1932. He graduated in first place in 1937, having taken a scholarship in each academic year. His house officer year at the Royal Victoria Hospital was the beginning of a lifelong association, which would see him become secretary and chairman of the medical staff committee and the Hospital Orator. In 1940, within a six month period, he had gained both the gold medal for his MD thesis and membership of the College.

During the Second World War he served in the Royal Air Force as a specialist medical officer, both in the UK and West Africa, attaining the rank of squadron leader.

In 1947, he was appointed as a consultant clinical pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but his interest in both clinical and laboratory haematology quickly dominated his professional life. In laboratory medicine his major interest was the automation of haematological analyses (he established Belfast as one of the major centres for this type of development) and ultimately the introduction of computers for the analysis of laboratory data. He published widely on these topics and was much in demand as a speaker at national and international meetings. One Saturday morning in Amsterdam he was giving a paper on complicated haematological computerisation, but lightened the proceedings by showing beautiful photographs, taken by himself, of his beloved Royal County Down Golf Course. He served on many advisory committees about laboratory equipment and was chairman for eight years of the Department of Health equipment advisory group.

On the clinical side there were the beginnings of effective treatments for haemophilia and leukaemia, and he quickly established a local haemophilia centre, becoming its first director, and was a founder member of the MRC Working Parties on the treatment of leukaemias. He established both in-patient and out-patient facilities for haematological patients and for many years this was the only such unit in the province. As a physician he was noted for his great interest in patients and their families, and was extremely supportive of them. In 1964 a family approached him after their daughter, aged 15, had died from leukaemia with a view to setting up a local research group. He was very enthusiastic in his support and now the Northern Ireland Leukaemia Research Fund has raised over £6 million and in each academic year supports research work in the province to the extent of some £350,000.

A founder member of the Royal College of Pathologists, he served on the council, to which he was re-elected on three separate occasions. He was on the committee of the Association of Physicians and on the British Medical Association visit to Belfast he was their scientific secretary. Any cause he embraced he did so with great enthusiasm, and his commitment to planning the new hospital included travelling widely within the UK, USA and Canada as a member of the hospital planning committee. In recognition of his contribution in many areas the Queen’s University appointed him to a personal chair in 1971.

After retirement in 1979 he maintained his connections with the Royal Victoria Hospital and in 1990 published a comprehensive account of the first 100 years of laboratory service there. In 1994 he published his final paper on Sir Thomas Houston and the founding of clinical pathology.

As a colleague he was always very supportive, stimulating, totally committed to his discipline and his hospital and always looking for ways to improve both laboratory and clinical services. Whilst eager to embrace any new development he also had a very deep feeling for the traditions of the art of medicine. In 1961 he gave the annual oration at the hospital entitled ‘Science and the progress of Medicine’. In it he stated that ‘Medicine is a calling which men practice, learn and acquire scientific knowledge and technical skills and apply these in the public service to the benefit of the sick. It demands the utilisation of all technical advances which are now available. At the same time the patient as a person must not be forgotten. There is in medicine no real conflict between science and sympathy’. These words in a nutshell typified the man.

He brought his natural zest and enthusiasm also to his hobbies which included photography, gardening, fishing, but his major recreation was golf and he was particularly proud of having been captain of the Royal County Down Golf Club.

Gerald and his wife Hazel were blessed with three children. Their elder son, Peter, was also an extremely gifted physician whose tally of undergraduate medal prizes was comparable to that of his father. He died in 1991. Gerald is survived by his wife, a son who is a dental surgeon, and a daughter, a medical graduate.

J M Bridges

[Brit.med.J.,2006 332 182]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List