Lives of the fellows

Thomas Cecil Gray

b.11 March 1913 d.5 January 2008
CBE(1976) OstJ(1979) MB ChB Liverp(1937) DA(1941) MD(1947) FRCA(1948) Hon FFARCSI(1962) FRCS(1968) Hon FRCP(1972) Hon FANZCA(1992)

Thomas Cecil Gray was professor of anaesthesia at Liverpool University and one of the great British pioneers of modern anaesthetics. He developed the use of muscle relaxant drugs which had hardly been used in the UK before the Second World War. Previously, if the patient required major chest or abdominal surgery, the only way to obtain the necessary relaxation of the muscles was to cut through them, causing large unsightly scars and possible secondary hernias. His work was to make surgery far less hazardous and pave the way for huge advances in the field.

He was born in Liverpool, the son of Thomas Gray, a publican who kept the Clock Inn. His mother was Ethelreda née Unwin, the daughter of Samuel, who was a haberdasher. A devout Roman Catholic all his life, he was educated at the Convent of the Sacre Coeur in Bath and then at Ampleforth. Feeling that he might have a vocation, he joined the monastery as a novice monk. After two months he left since, as he recalled, it was obvious to everyone but himself that the monastic life was not for him. His mother was ‘quietly disappointed’ but his father was pleased, and happy to support him in a medical career.

In Liverpool, he studied medicine at the university and the United Liverpool Hospital and became a trainee in general practice when he graduated in 1937. There was little opportunity for specialisation then, so his father helped him to purchase a practice in Wallasey. He rapidly became fascinated by anaesthesia, which, at that time, was largely administered on a locum basis by GPs keen to keep up an association with their local hospital. Employing a part-time partner to help run the practice, he began to study for the diploma in anaesthetics assisted by Robert Minnett, a distinguished local GP anaesthetist. When he gained the diploma in 1941, he sold his practice and became a full time anaesthetist.

Due to his lifelong asthma, he was rejected for service when the Second World War broke out. In 1942 he reapplied and was posted to a neurosurgical unit in north Africa. While there he developed severe pneumonia which was cured by injections of a new drug, crystalline penicillin, from what he described as ‘trial samples’. Invalided out of the service, he returned home to Liverpool.

He had begun his academic career in 1942 when he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Liverpool. In 1947 he was appointed reader and head of the newly established academic department of anaesthetics. Awarded a personal chair in 1959, he stayed there until he retired from active practice in 1976. He was the first postgraduate dean of the faculty of medicine in Liverpool University from 1966 to 1970 and then dean of the faculty of medicine until 1976.

Early in his academic career, he met up with a fellow anaesthetist, John Halton, and together they began experiments in using curare as a muscle relaxant. Their work culminated in a paper which they presented jointly to the section of anaesthesia at the Royal Society of Medicine on 1 March 1946, ‘A milestone in anaesthesia?’ (Proc Roy Soc Med, 1946, 39, 400-10). Although they quoted over 1000 cases in which the drug had been used successfully, their findings were treated with a good deal of scepticism about the use of this apparent poison. However, after more hard work and some refinements, the ‘Liverpool technique’ as Gray’s method came to be known, is still used all over the world and has become the foundation of modern relaxant-based anaesthetic practice.

Equally pioneering was Gray’s contribution to postgraduate education in anaesthesia, particularly his introduction of the first day-release course in the UK for junior anaesthetists. As early as 1947, he had seen the need for a high standard for formal training and an examination structure similar to that of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. The course rapidly became full time and surgeons were persuaded to accept the presence of trainees in the operating theatres.

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Elected a foundation member of the board of the faculty of anaesthetists at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1948, he served as vice-dean from 1952 to 1954 and as dean from 1964 to 1967. He played an active role in many professional bodies and societies, and was president of the section of anaesthesia of the Royal Society of Medicine and vice-president of the Medical Defence Union. Abroad, he participated in the foundation of the European Congress of Anaesthesiology and the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiology.

He published numerous papers and co-edited many editions of General anaesthesia (London, Butterworths,1959). The British journal of anaesthesia was edited by him from 1948 to 1964. He gave numerous eponymous lectures and won many awards including the gold medal of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 1982 he was awarded a gold medal by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the role he played in the organisation of the Pope’s visit to Liverpool. From 1966 to 1983 he was also a much respected member of the Liverpool Bench.

An enthusiastic host and an entertaining guest, he had a passion for amateur dramatics and was both a player and a producer with the Irish Players for over 20 years. An accomplished pianist and opera lover, he was a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Liverpool Welsh Choral Society and the Verdi Society. He possessed a library of books which reflected his eclectic tastes and he continued to write well into his eighties, publishing a biography of the founder of the Liverpool Medical School, Dr Richard Formby (London, RCP, 2003).

In 1937, he married Margaret (Margot) Helen née Hely, whose father, Herbert William, was a dental surgeon. Margot was a talented amateur actress and an artist. They had two children, David, a consultant anaesthetist in Liverpool and Beverley. Margot died in 1978 and the following year he married Pamela Mary née Corning. When he died, Pamela survived him, together with their son, James Frederick, who was born in 1981, and the children from his first marriage.

RCP editor

[The Independent 26 January 2008; Daily Telegraph 30 January 2008; Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England http://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/biogs/E000718b.htm - accessed on 1 January 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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