Lives of the fellows

Christopher Agamemnon Pallis

b.4 December 1923 d.10 March 2005
BM BCh Oxon(1947) MRCP(1950) MA(1951) DM(1956) FRCP(1967)

Chris Pallis was an accomplished neurologist, a reader in neurology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London, who established the criteria for brainstem death, and also a left-wing writer who wrote under several pseudonyms. He was born in Bombay, India, the son of Alexander Pallis, a businessman from a distinguished Anglo-Greek family, and Calliope née Metaxa. He was educated in Switzerland and then went on to study medicine at Oxford.

For three years, from 1948 to 1950, he was in the Colonial Medical Service in Malaya. He then held junior posts at Maida Vale Hospital for Nervous Diseases, from 1950 to 1952, and was then a senior registrar in the neurology department of the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff. In 1956 he was a senior registrar in the academic unit at the National Hospital, Queen Square, and then, from 1957, joined Hammersmith Hospital, London, as a consultant neurologist and as a lecturer in the Postgraduate Medical School. He remained at Hammersmith until his retirement in 1982.

He gave a lecture series on neurology every year, and most of the students were physicians from overseas. At the Hammersmith lectures were offered in all disciplines of medicine, and at the end of each course there were anonymous evaluations from the postgraduates. Chris Pallis was regularly voted the best teacher, in a school renowned for the quality of its postgraduate instruction. When asked whether the ability to teach was a natural gift, he said no, he would simply spend a great deal of time thinking about the difficulties he had encountered with a subject, and then present it in a way that overcame these difficulties. After this, the central task was finding maximal simplicity with minimal inaccuracy.

As a clinician, Chris Pallis was meticulous in obtaining a history, precise in eliciting physical signs, and piercingly perceptive in analyzing the evidence to reach a diagnosis. He was a master at separating what was important from all the distractions. He had a particular flare for the detective work necessary for delving into long, complex medical records, and a special interest in the many facets of interaction between neurology and general medicine.

In research, Chris was ruthlessly rational – he used logic like a razor to cut into woolly thinking, and he had no time for traditional wisdom when this clashed with new facts. He had an impish satisfaction in dispelling authoritative nonsense and had no time for the pretentious or the self important. A quotation he cited was from Alexander Pope: “It is with narrow-souled people as with narrow necked bottles: the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out.”

Chris Pallis formulated the most widely accepted criteria for terminal failure of neurological function – brainstem death. His publications on this topic were models of lucid analysis of well known facts that had not previously been assembled in a coherent and irrefutable argument that culminated in straightforward practical guidelines. His essay on death in the Encyclopaedia Britannica wove medical science into cultural history – a remarkable intellectual achievement.

Chris Pallis and his wife Jeanne (Jeannine née Marty) were pioneers of academic travel. On his return from his trips abroad, he would give a lecture that combined exotic (usually tropical) neurology with colourful slides of the places and people he had encountered. The lectures would include an erudite account of the history, religion and social customs of the region. At the end one felt educated and entertained. The slides were memorable for their high photographic quality, and there was usually a modest acknowledgement that Jeanne had taken them, and a less modest aside that he had told her what to take. The large lecture theatre at the Wolfson Centre was packed for these lectures – everyone went, whether or not they were neurologists.

While teaching, clinical practice and science were the salient contributions he made to medicine, there were other dimensions to his life. As a friend and colleague, Chris Pallis will be remembered, by those who knew him well, as a quiet man with a roguish sense of humour, in a setting of exceptional warmth and kindness. His commitment to rational thought, his rejection of bias, and his tenacious quest for ‘the truth’ (and what this meant) would have guaranteed a notable career in philosophy had he chosen a different role in life. As it was, academic medicine was accompanied by other commitments – namely politics. In this regard he shared many attributes with James Parkinson, another London physician who was an astute clinical observer and eloquent medical writer – his essay on the ‘shaking palsy’ was the classical description of the disease that bears his name. Parkinson was also a pamphleteer whose social views threatened the status quo to the extent that he used a pseudonym (Old Hubert) for his political publications. Like Parkinson, Chris Pallis used pseudonyms for his political writings, and he dedicated himself to his views of social justice with determination and energy, though this part of his life did not impinge in any way upon his pursuit of academic neurology. It was a sad coincidence that Chris Pallis developed Parkinson’s disease, which progressively undermined the last years of his life.

Donald Calne

[Brit.med.J.,2005,330,908; The Guardian 24 March 2005]

(Volume XII, page web)

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