Lives of the fellows

William Alexander Briscoe

b.26 May 1918 d.21 December 1985
BM BCh Oxon(1942) DM(1951) MRCP(1974) FRCP(1975) FACP(1976)

With the death of William (Bill) the age of 67. pulmonary physiology and medicine lost a distinguished research worker and physician and a man whose charming idiocyncrasies were nearly as well known as his important scientific contributions.

Bill Briscoe was born in London, the son of Henry V A Briscoe, professor of inorganic chemistry at Imperial College in the University of London, and Rebecca Stevenson Briscoe, a graduate in mathematics from London University, much interested in education. Bill was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and later in London at St Paul’s School. He was a good student, excelling particularly in zoology and mathematics. Classics, however, was not exactly his forte and Bill required some gentle tutoring in Latin to ensure success at his Oxford examination.

During his late teens, both in Newcastle and in London, he became a prolific painter in watercolours. For those who knew him, it came as no surprise that his favourite subjects were industrial scenes with factories belching black smoke, although he also executed quiet, charming paintings where cottage and rolling landscape dominated the scene. He won all the art prizes at St Paul's but after leaving for Oxford with an open scholarship to New College, and for reasons that will always be obscure, he almost never painted again. An occasional poster, during his student days at Oxford, wittily advertising the coming of a seminar speaker was the sum total of his artistic output.

He did well at Oxford but was always more interested in the laboratory side than on gaining honours. He did not get a first and it was strange that, even in late life, this able physician and original clinical scientist would refer to this irrelevant disappointment. After a junior appointment at the Brompton, he went off to the war, serving three years in the RAMC in North Africa, Italy and India. During the war, while serving in the Italian theatre, he was asked by his commanding officer to obtain a dozen or so pints of blood. To show the troops how safe and easy it was to donate blood, he became the first volunteer. This worked so well that Bill repeated the demonstration over and over again until his Hb was about 7.0 gm % and his distraught commanding officer - now Sir Gordon Wolstenholme, and currently Harveian Librarian and Editor of Munk's Roll - ordered him to cease and desist.

After demobilization, he became RMO at Hammersmith Hospital where, under the inspiring leadership of Sir John McMichael, he blossomed as a scientist and respiratory physiologist. Never one to embrace modern technology if string and sealing wax would suffice, his Heath Robinson type laboratory probed basic questions in intrapulmonary gas mixing.

Although he was an eccentric, he was recognized by his colleagues as a deep thinker and a truly original research worker. He continued his training at Bellevue, where he came under the lasting influence of André Cournand and Dickinson Richards, and also at Philadelphia where he was much influenced by Julius Comroe [q.v.]. He returned to the UK in 1953 and for two years continued his studies at the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit at Cardiff. But when an invitation from Comroe arrived, inviting him to return to Philadelphia, he accepted and returned to the United States where he was to continue his academic career in physiology and medicine.

In 1956 the pull of the Cournand lab, and his affection for New York City, led him to accept an invitation to work at Bellevue and to join the faculty of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. For 12 years he was to remain in that legendary laboratory which was a dynamic focus for all that was best in pulmonary medicine and physiology. He contributed steadily to his field with thoughtful articles illuminating many basic questions in distribution of lung gases in health and disease. He took great care over the preparation of his papers and would not publish unless he thought he had something important to say.

In 1968 he joined the faculty of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center as a full professor of medicine and head of the pulmonary division. He led the division with great humour and intellectual vigour, and was much beloved by his colleagues. Genuinely modest, he hated pretension and was a most witty and skilful pricker of the bubbles of pomposity. For as long as I can remember, his battle-scared wallet was a pocket hardware store - razor blades, paper clips, and miniscule screwdrivers; his pockets a battery of pens and pencils of all shapes and sizes and many hues. Those who knew his office on the 4th floor at New York Hospital will have an ineradicable memory of a Merlin’s cave overstuffed with the unexpected.

He was not much of a general clinician but enjoyed contact with all his patients, who implicitly trusted him. What he may have lacked in expert knowledge was made up by his warmth and his ready willingness to admit ignorance. Even when he had a pretty good idea of what was going on he would take pains to defer to experts in the field. He was an excellent and clear minded lecturer, and even a lifelong mild stammer did not prevent his lectures from being original and informative.

A heavy and lifelong smoker, it was in 1971 that he noticed increasing hoarseness. Cancer of the larynx was diagnosed in 1972 and a laryngectomy was performed. With indomitable spirit and good humour, he quickly mastered laryngeal speech, taught the technique to others in his spare time, and was soon back giving lectures to his students who frequently gave him a standing ovation. From now on, however, increasing illness dogged his life. He required two hip operations for crippling arthritis, nearly died from a pulmonary embolism, and in 1980 a new tumour was found at the back of the tongue. His speech became more difficult and secondary growth of his original carcinoma became apparent. From then on he communicated more and more by writing. His notes, cryptic, witty and to the point, achieved with Bill a new art form. A year after his bilateral hip replacement in 1983, a third tumour arose - this time in the pharynx. Despite heroic surgery, swallowing rapidly became difficult and Bill’s life became far from easy.

It was remarkable that without the power of oesophageal speech, in constant pain and discomfort and the development of dysphagia which required a gastroscopy, he was still able during the closing days of his life to remain cheerful. Broken in body but never in spirit, this eccentric Englishman, who at one time roamed the streets of New York looking into trash cans for interesting objects which he could use in the laboratory, died at his home in New York City.

Bill’s many contributions to respiratory medicine were recognized by his election to the Association of American Physicians and membership on several advisory committees to the National Institutes of Health and National Aeronautical Space Administration. Although his work was difficult to follow and few could discuss his work on Bohr’s integral isopleths with intelligence, he was able to write with his colleagues Arthur DuBois, Robert Forster and Julius Comroe, the classic textbook on The Lung, Chicago, Year Book Publishers, 1955. He was correcting the proofs of the third edition a week before he died.

In 1955 he married Dr Anne E Milman of New York City, a graduate of Vassar College and Yale University, who is on the faculty of Colombia University College of physicians where she served as associate professor. Bill Briscoe was buried in a pre-Revolution cemetery at Haddam Neck, deep in the Connecticut countryside, where he and his wife, who survived him, had spent so many happy summers. There were no children.

AG Bearn

[Lancet, 1986,1,110; New York Times, 22 Dec 1985]

(Volume VIII, page 48)

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