Lives of the fellows

Norman Montague Bleehen

b.24 February 1930 d.1 February 2008
CBE(1994) BSc BM BCh Oxon(1955) MRCP(1957) DMRT(1962) FRCR(1964) FRCP(1973)

Norman Montague Bleehen was the first Cancer Research Campaign professor of clinical oncology in the University of Cambridge. He built up a department primarily involved with studying lung cancer and brain tumours. The excellent reputation that this department acquired led to greatly increased resources and the founding of a new cancer institute.

He was born in Manchester, the son of Soloman, a headmaster, and his wife Lena née Shlosberg, who was the daughter of Solomon Shlosberg, a rabbi. Both parents were descended from Orthodox families with a long tradition of rabbinical scholars. After attending Haberdasher's Aske's School, he studied medicine at Exeter College, Oxford and the Middlesex Hospital. While at Oxford he spent an extra year studying biochemistry and winning the Gotch memorial prize for his work on insulin. He also became president of the Oxford University Jewish Society.

Qualifying in 1955, he did house jobs in London and Oxford before joining the RAMC two years later to do his National Service as a junior specialist in medicine. From 1958 to 1959 he served as physician to the British Military Hospital in Berlin where, ironically for a Jew, he was responsible for the health of the Nazi war criminals, including von Schirach, Speer and Hess at Spandau gaol.

On demobilisation, he returned to Oxford as a junior lecturer in medicine in 1959, and then joined the Middlesex as senior registrar in the Meyerstein Institute of Radiology in 1962, having been invited to train under Sir Brian Windeyer [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.528]. Eventually, when Sir Brian retired in 1969, he became professor of radiotherapy and honorary consultant to the Middlesex and Mount Vernon hospitals.

During his time at the Middlesex, he spent a year (from 1966 to 1967) as visiting research fellow in the department of radiology at Stanford University Medical Center, where he was greatly influenced by Henry Kaplan’s pioneering research.

Moving to Cambridge in 1975, he joined the department of child oncology and radiotherapeutics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital as professor of clinical oncology and head of department. Here he built up one of the leading oncology research units in the UK, principally concentrating on lung cancer and brain tumours. As chairman of the Medical Research Council (MRC) cancer therapy committee he recognised the need for clinical testing and evaluation of all new drugs and treatments. One of his major achievements was to set up a cancer trials office in 1977 which was to grow steadily both in terms of its output and recognition.

Chairman of the British Association for Cancer Research, vice president of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, he was also president of the International Society for Radiation Oncology. He was on the editorial board of many important journals, published six books and wrote, or contributed to, over 400 papers, chapters and editorials. Elected a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge in 1976, he was also awarded an honorary degree from the oldest medical school in the world at the University of Bologna. In 1994 he was awarded the CBE for his services to medicine.

Among his interests, he enjoyed sailing, music, pottery and collecting small antiques.

In 1969 he married Tirza Rebecca née Loeb, whose father, Arnold, was an accountant. She was of Israeli/Australian origin and a colleague of his at the Middlesex. Together they enjoyed entertaining their friends and colleagues from around the world in their home and beautiful garden. Ironically for a lifelong non-smoker and passionate leader of the anti-smoking campaign, he developed lung cancer in 2006. When he died, two years later, Tirza survived him.

RCP editor

[BMJ, 2008 336 1383; Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys, 2008 73 648-9]

(Volume XII, page web)

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