Lives of the fellows

Jonas Henrik Kellgren

b.11 September 1911 d.22 February 2002
MB BS Lond(1934) MRCP(1935) FRCS(1936) FRCP(1951) MSc Manch(1957)

Jonas Henrik Kellgren was professor of rheumatology, director of the rheumatology research centre at the University of Manchester, and a pioneer in the study of the physiology of pain. He was born in Hindhead, Surrey, the son of Harry Kellgren, a medical practitioner who was Swedish, and Vera Kellgren née Dumclunksen, a Russian who had fled Tsarist oppression. The Kellgrens were descended from Johan Henric Kellgren, one of Sweden’s most famous poets, who had lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The family’s involvement in medicine began around 100 years ago, when a Kellgren had to retire from the Swedish cavalry due to deafness. Joining a friend at Baden Baden, the old soldier became skilled in the treatment of disease by massage and exercise, supplemented by diet and relaxation. Ultimately he established his own spa on Lake Vattern in southern Sweden, and encouraged his many children to become doctors. A London branch in Eton Square was set up, run by Kellgren’s father and uncle. It was here that Jonas Henrik Kellgren grew up. The London business eventually failed, but a grateful patient paid for Kellgren’s education at Bedales School and then University College Medical School.

Kellgren held house posts at University College Hospital and then, from 1937 to 1939, he was a research fellow with Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.531]. In 1938 he won a travelling scholarship to study physical medicine in Scandinavia. His research demonstrated the concept of ‘referred pain’ – the idea that the source of pain is not always near to where it is experienced by the patient.

In April 1939 Kellgren was awarded a Beit fellowship to continue his research, but, after five months, when the Second World War was declared, the scholarship was withdrawn. He was put in charge of the surgical unit at Great Ormond Street Hospital, which had been evacuated to Hemel Hempstead, having to learn most of his surgical skills on the job. He then operated on Dunkirk survivors at Leavesden Hospital, Hertfordshire. In 1941 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, with the rank of major, serving on the front-lines in North Africa and Italy.

Following his demobilisation in 1946, he joined the Medical Research Council at the Winfield Morris Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford, researching peripheral nerve injuries.

In 1947 he reverted to a career as a physician, and was appointed as clinical director to the University of Manchester Centre for Research in Chronic Rheumatism. Kellgren was joined by John Lawrence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.294], who worked on the epidemiology of rheumatism in the coal workers of Lancashire. This work provided the foundation for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council’s field unit.

At Manchester, Kellgren formulated the concept of ‘nodal’ osteoarthritis, occurring mainly in older women, often running in families. This was characterised by nodes on the distal joints of the fingers, with the small joints in the neck and lower back also affected. It was also frequently associated with osteoarthritis of the knees. He established the radiological criteria for the severity of arthritis, which remain in use today. Other studies were carried out on gout and ankylosing spondylitis, and he highlighted the benefits of exercise in the latter condition, in contrast to the rest recommended for other inflammatory arthritic diseases.

In 1953 Kellgren was appointed professor of rheumatology at Manchester, the first such appointment in England. In his later career he spent a great deal of time developing teaching programmes for students, and made a major contribution to both undergraduate and postgraduate education in his region. He was dean of the medical school between 1968 and 1973.

At a national and international level, Kellgren served on several committees and boards, including the 1984 Flowers’ committee, which reviewed London medical schools and postgraduate institutes. He was also an adviser to the World Health Organization. He was president of the Heberden Society and an honorary member. In 1996, the new research facilities at Manchester were named in his honour.

Outside medicine, Kellgren enjoyed landscape painting and modern languages. He retired to the Lake District.

He married twice. His first marriage, to Ruth Rushton, ended in divorce in 1940. They had a daughter. In 1942, he married for a second time, to Thelma Reynolds. They had four daughters. He was survived by Thelma and his five daughters.

RCP editor

[Manchester Medical Gazette Jan 1971 50 (2) p.68; Eular – official information journal of the European League against Rheumatism 1976, Vol.5, No.4, p.131; The Guardian 4 March 2002; The Times 2 April 2002; Plarr’s Lives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England Vol.9, p.190; Rheumatology 2003 42(5): 708-9; ARC Epidemiology Unit: Golden Jubilee 2004 – accessed 19 June 2012]

(Volume XII, page web)

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