Lives of the fellows

Raphael Balcon

b.26 August 1936 d.15 January 2008
MB BS Lond(1960) MRCS LRCP(1960) MD(1969) MRCP(1965) FRCP(1977)

Raphael Balcon was recognised as one of the leading cardiologists of his generation. His career began in 1960 when the specialty was about to be greatly enhanced by new technology. One of the first in the UK to perform coronary angioplasty, he also began one of the world's first computerised clinical databases with a 30 year follow up, thus creating an outstanding resource on the natural history of coronary disease.

Born in London, he was the son of Henry Balcon, a business executive. Educated at Christ College School in Finchley, he studied medicine at King's College Hospital. After house jobs at King's and the London Chest Hospital (LCH), he travelled to the US where he spent a year at Wayne State University and was able to observe the latest techniques in cardiac care.

On his return to the UK, he rejoined the staff at King's and combined clinical work with research into the use of beta blockers. In 1966, he became registrar, then senior registrar the following year, at the National Heart Hospital. Here he worked with Donald Ross, Edgar Sowton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.462] and Lawson McDonald [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. As well as being colleagues, they all became close friends. Together they researched new techniques in the treatment of coronary artery disease and Balcon, in particular, exhibited great skill with the cardiac catheter.

He was elected a member of the British Cardiac Society in 1969, and the following year became a fellow of the American College of Cardiology. Also in 1970, he was appointed consultant cardiologist to the London Chest Hospital, where he was to spend the next 31 years. With John Wright, he built the unit into a centre of excellence that was internationally renowned, and it was here, in 1980, that he was to perform coronary angioplasty for the first time in the UK.

Always keen to pass on his skills, one of his strengths was the training of junior doctors. In recognition of this, he was appointed dean of London University’s cardiothoracic institute in 1976.

He wrote, or contributed to, over 100 papers on the diagnosis and treatment of arrhythmias and coronary artery disease. Despite of this he found time to take a full part in hospital administration. President of the British Cardiac Society from 1995 to 1997, he was also chairman of the European Congress of Cardiology working group on coronary blood flow and of the RCP committee on cardiology, plus several others. After retirement, he continued with his committee work and also took part in the National Cardiac Audit Database as a founder/member of the steering group. The existence of this database was to result in a dramatic reduction of the national mortality from heart attacks. He advised the Department of Health on the national classification for cardiac interventions and chaired an expert group on payment by results until just before his death.

As a cardiologist he appreciated the value of exercise. He loved walking and, an accomplished skier, he owned a chalet in Switzerland which he visited regularly. He insisted that regular tennis sessions were a mandatory part of the day in the training timetable for junior staff. A skilled carpenter, he enjoyed making furniture, model aeroplanes and, perhaps, most of all, unique walking sticks. He was a member of the British Stickmakers Guild. The Balcons were renowned for their hospitality and many national and international guests enjoyed his well chosen champagne and his wife’s wonderful meals.

In 1959 he married Elizabeth Ann née Henry, whose father Claude Reginald was a stockbroker. When he died of cancer, she survived him, together with their daughter and four grandchildren.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2008 336 1077; Heart 2008 94 648; The Times 12 March 2008]

(Volume XII, page web)

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