Lives of the fellows

Charlton (Sir) Briscoe

b.8 April 1874 d.28 February 1960
Bt(1921) MB Lond(1898) MD Lond(1903) MRCS LRCP(1898) MRCP(1902) FRCP(1910)

Sir John Charlton Briscoe was the third baronet, succeeding his brother in 1921. His father was Sir John James Briscoe, first baronet, a businessman, of Bourn Hall, Cambridgeshire, formerly high sheriff of that county. His mother was Ellen, daughter of Alfred Charlton, of Oak House, Altrincham. Briscoe was educated at Harrow School and entered the medical department of King’s College, London, in 1892 with a Warneford scholarship, and on graduation was appointed house physician to Sir David Ferrier.

After being Sambrooke registrar he did post-graduate study at Gottingen under Professor L. Aschoff, who became a life-long friend. Here he gained his enthusiasm for pathology. Returning to King’s in 1903 he became senior medical tutor and registrar, and was appointed assistant physician in 1908.

At the College he was a member of Council in 1929 and 1930, Censor in 1930 and 1931, and Senior Censor in 1933. At the Royal College of Surgeons he gave the Arris and Gale lectures in 1919.

In a busy life he was physician to the Hospital of St. John and Elizabeth, consulting physician to the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children, and chief medical officer of the Australian Mutual Provident Society. He served as master of his hospital Lodge of Freemasons, of which he was a foundation member, and was on the advisory board of the Royal Masonic Hospital. During the First World War he was gazetted major in the R.A.M.C. He was president of the section of medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine from 1935 to 1937. About this time he retired from London, having undergone a very serious major operation.

In middle age Briscoe was of medium height and build; a spare well-knit figure. He moved deliberately and he spoke deliberately, with a voice of a dry quality, pleasant, musical and clear. Cleanshaven, with a fresh complexion, kindly lines of humour marked his cheeks; his eyes were deep grey with a quizzical expression. A rather untidy quiff of greyish hair gave him a boyish look, which never quite left him.

Geniality and honesty were his outstanding characteristics, and he was a gentleman in the truest sense of that word. His mind was of an enquiring type. He could always look round a subject, illuminate it from an unexpected angle, and take a view that was not just the ordinary one.

As a teacher at the bedside he was not at his best for the ordinary student who expected to be fed with the ordinary things, but he was an excellent clinician, with an accurate clinical memory and a flair for brilliant diagnosis. He had never accepted the polypharmacy that still lingered into the twentieth century; he relied but little on drugs, for general measures meant more to him.

At King’s he shared a research laboratory with Lenthal Cheatle and Arthur Whitfield, and there maintained his life-long interest in lung function, particularly in the muscular mechanism of breathing, a subject but very little explored even today. As a former prosector at the Royal College of Surgeons his anatomical knowledge was quite extensive.

For the relief of pain, in some cases due to pleurisy,he invented a neat tape, buckled, with a small bight across which was fitted a little spring, thus allowing one side to expand; at King’s it was called the ‘Briscoe belt’. In order to record the movements of the muscles of breathing he devised a sort of giant polygraph with some half-dozen pens writing on a wide band of paper, fascinating to see, but giving a record difficult to interpret. In 1927 he summed up this original work and the information it might give in the Lumleian lectures to the College; it is now neglected and forgotten.

Some years before he retired in 1935 he had acquired a large unproductive estate at Lakenheath in Suffolk, mostly barren and unfertile soil. But Briscoe was a countryman at heart, and this was a challenge to his energy and ingenuity. With the help of fertilisers, unusual crops, and patient tilling of the soil he made ‘the desert blossom as the rose’, and astonished local farmers with his flocks and herds and crops.

Two years before his death at the age of eighty-five he came to King’s minus his stomach, rectum and one kidney, as sprightly and boyish as ever, and entranced his audience for an hour with tales of the old days. He rarely missed the hospital dinner, where his old students would throng to greet him.

In 1909 he married Grace Maud Stagg, M.B., B.S., daughter of the Rev. W. S. Stagg of Waveney House, Weybridge. They had two sons.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1960, 1, 733, 810; King’s Coll. Hosp. Gaz., 1935,14, 127-8; 1960, 39, 91-2; Lancet, 1960,1, 554-5 (p); Times, 29 Feb. 1960.]

(Volume V, page 49)

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