Lives of the fellows

James Laing Gordon Thomson

b.11 September 1922 d.20 June 2006
MB BS Lond(1945) DMRD(1948) MD(1950) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1971) FRCR(1975)

Gordon Thomson was a consultant neuroradiologist in Bristol whose professional lifetime spanned massive advances in his specialty. Plain X-rays were augmented by tomographs, then computerised axial tomography (CAT) and the introduction of high-definition magnetic resonance images (MRI). Neuro-invasive diagnostic techniques such as carotid arteriography and air encephalography, innovative in their day and at which he excelled, were rendered almost obsolete.

Gordon Thomson was one of five children from a family of ministers and doctors. His father was both a family doctor and a minister in the Church of Scotland. His mother’s father was a chemist. Gordon’s elder brother qualified as a doctor, enrolled in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but died of polio in India; his middle sister had died in the 1930s of diphtheria on a school trip down the Rhine: both diseases became preventable during Gordon’s lifetime.

His father had died (from renal carcinoma) when Gordon was 13 years of age. Tight family finances followed, but allowed Gordon to enjoy a boarding school education at St Lawrence College in Ramsgate (where he witnessed Battle of Britain dogfights in his last year), though they precluded entry to Cambridge University. Serendipitously, his pre-clinical year at St Bartholomew’s Hospital was then evacuated to Cambridge, where Gordon was affiliated to Queen’s College. As a war-time clinical student at Bart’s, he firewatched on the rooves of major London buildings, where he educated himself about Wren’s London churches.

He was house physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (from 1945 to 1946), where he developed an early interest in medicine. However, training posts in medicine were difficult to find after the war. During National Service in the Volunteer Reserve at Princess Mary Hospital, RAF Halton near Aylesbury in 1948, he travelled to the Middlesex Hospital to train in radiology, and completed his diploma of medico-radiological diagnosis (DMRD) in rapid time. He was graded squadron leader by demobilisation. He worked as registrar in radiology at St Helier Hospital in Carshalton. By then, Gordon had chosen to sub-specialise in the relatively new discipline of neuroradiology, but needed medical experience towards becoming a clinical radiologist. He returned as junior medical registrar to Bart’s (1950 to 1952), obtaining MD by exam in 1950 and MRCP in 1952.

He acquired neuroradiological experience with James Bull [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.62] and Hugh Davies at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen’s Square (1952 to1953) and then, perhaps counter-intuitively but ultimately to his benefit, general radiological experience at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford (1954 to 1955). In the 1950s neuroradiology was regarded as a challenging and evolving branch of the specialty, because of the special skills needed in both obtaining and interpreting the images. On appointment as a consultant radiologist with special interest in neuroradiology, he found that his neuroradiological role needed justification to some neurosurgeons, who had hitherto performed their own investigations. However, he was able to demonstrate the added value of having a trained neuroradiologist in the unit. His expertise was recognised and neurosurgical and neurologist colleagues came to value his opinion very highly.

A pioneer in his sub-specialty, he remained at the forefront of his expanding discipline. He created strong and effective links with specialist clinicians in his field and with radiologists in other hospitals, particularly the university teaching hospital, where he made an essential contribution to the postgraduate training programme. He was also a visiting consultant to the United Bristol Hospitals.

He efficiently established a dedicated neuroradiological imaging unit, with the emphasis on investigation to solve the clinical problem. He embraced the challenge of computerised tomography – in 1973 his unit at Frenchay was allocated the eighth CAT (computerised axial tomography) scanner in the UK. The sampling window was long and the images crude by comparison with those achievable only 15 years later, at the end of his professional life, but the development was astounding at the time. Publications on its application to the diagnosis of intracranial pathology followed, including subjects such as the effects of cannabis smoking on ventricular size. This experience was ideal for the later development of neurological magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at Frenchay Hospital (the fifth scanner in the UK this time) – and more research followed (including, ironically considering the cause of his death, early work on the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease by MRI).

He was awarded the FRCP in 1971 and the fellowship of the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) without examination in 1975.

He presented regularly but published relatively little by current standards, mainly with papers illustrating the clinical utility of the specialist neuro-scanning techniques available. What he did publish was of high quality and regarded as seminal – one 1968 paper on spinal stenosis was still being quoted in 1999. He was on the editorial board of Clinical Radiology, the scientific journal of the RCR.

Starting on 11 sessions, Gordon soon worked ‘maximum part-time’ – the old formula where a consultant who earned more than 10 per cent of their earnings from private practice was paid by the NHS for only nine sessions. This concealed the reality of covering the south west region for neuroradiology single-handedly and full-time for the first 24 years of his post. He developed a private general radiology practice, based in Litfield House, a Regency mansion on the Bristol Downs – together with specialists from other disciplines. Films were viewed the evening of the day they were taken, and his typed report would, if urgent, be delivered personally to the ordering specialist on Gordon’s way home in the late evening. In the early years this practice included domiciliary radiology. Gordon recalled one visit to a local stately home to X-ray the owner after a hunting accident: although he announced himself at the front door as a consultant radiologist, the butler informed him that ‘tradesmen are admitted round the back’!

After NHS work ended, Gordon’s private practice continued and even expanded after NHS retirement in 1987, until he fully retired in 1992. His final contribution to the NHS came after NHS retirement when, with Paul Goddard, Terry Beddoe and Clive Johnston and the Bristol MRI Centre Appeal, his efforts to raise money for the MR scanner at Frenchay ensured its financial viability for subsequent years.

Gordon was a founder member of the British Society of Neuroradiology (but never held office) and hosted the 1981 meeting. His interests were in the practical application of his skills. The motto of RAF Halton ‘Teach, Learn, Apply’ describes Gordon’s own approach.

Gordon was sociable, calm and patient. He enjoyed listening and had time for everybody to the point of self-effacement. He was fair-minded and was held in great esteem by regional colleagues and national peers. His generous spirit and friendship were highly valued – especially at the South West Radiological Association and the 62 Visiting Club, to which he contributed regularly.

Gordon loved the Bristol suburb of Clifton, where his family lived for 21 years, with its Regency and Victorian buildings: his hobbies included collecting antique furniture, silver and clocks – his colleagues in Clifton were surprised to find how much of the private practice premises had been furnished by him. A modest sportsman in his early days (‘school and university rugby and hockey – no outstanding successes’ he wrote on his College biographical details form in 1971) he was still keen enough to have the squash court at the United Bristol Hospital cleared of old beds and restored to use when he started work in Bristol in 1956.

Gordon married June in 1951. They had two sons, Alistair, a paediatrician who became a Fellow of the College in 1994, and Andrew. There are two grandchildren, Katie and Jamie.

Alistair Thomson

[Brit.med.J.,2006 333 974]

(Volume XII, page web)

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