Lives of the fellows

David Geraint James

b.2 January 1922 d.22 October 2010
BA Cantab(1942) MRCS LRCP(1944) MB BChir(1944) MRCP(1946) MD(1953) FRCP(1964) Hon LLD Wales(1982) Hon FACP(1990) FRCOphth(1994)

David Geraint (‘Gerry’) James, dean of the Royal Northern Hospital and a leading expert on sarcoidosis, was undoubtedly one of the most colourful of the RCP’s many fellows – as was his wife, Dame Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514].

He was born in the south Wales mining town of Treherbert in the Rhondda Fawr Valley. His father, David James, was a local headmaster whose first wife, Sarah, died leaving him with one son, Arnold (who later became the town clerk of Stepney). David’s second wife, also named Sarah (née Davies), was a widow with three daughters. Gerry was her fourth and last child. Childhood holidays were spent at his mother’s family farm in Llanarth, near New Quay, Cardiganshire.

David, a major figure in Welsh educational circles, was secretary of the Welsh Language Society and, like his wife, a member of the ‘Gorsedd’, or modern-day bards. His bardic name ‘Defynnog’ and Sarah’s was ‘Aeronia’. Understandably, Gerry’s first language was Welsh. When he joined the Gorsedd in 1986 he took the name ‘Aerynog’ – a fusion of his parents’ names.

David James died, aged 63, a month before his son’s 7th birthday. The family remained in Treherbert. Gerry attended Pen-Yr-Englyn primary school and then the Rhondda County School for Boys (better known as ‘Porth County’). After deciding to study medicine, he moved to Pontypridd County School – as Porth did not then teach biology at a higher level. Gerry played rugby at Pen-Yr-Englyn and Porth, and captained a junior team in the Dewar Shield, still a major competition for young Welsh rugby players. He continued playing well into adult life and was later a vice-president of the London Welsh Rugby Club.

In 1939 Gerry entered Jesus College, Cambridge. He moved two years later to the Middlesex Hospital Medical School and qualified in 1944. At the Middlesex he served as George Beaumont’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.33] house physician and as a casualty officer, and then spent two years as a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Early in 1946 he spent two months on HMS Halcyon, the lead ship of seven minesweepers in the Channel, but for most of his time in the Navy he was a senior medical officer with the Fleet Air Arm at Air Station Ford in Sussex. In later life he was a civilian consultant to the Royal Navy.

Gerry returned to civilian life as Beaumont’s house physician at the Brompton, before moving to Hammersmith as a registrar to Guy Scadding [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.501], many of whose patients suffered from sarcoidosis. From September 1950 to July 1951 he worked on viral pneumonia at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and in 1953 was awarded an MD for his thesis on this subject. In New York Gerry was befriended by Lou Siltzbach, who ran a large sarcoidosis clinic and laid great emphasis on the Kveim skin test as a diagnostic tool. He provided Gerry with a relatively large amount of the precious Kveim antigen. Gerry later renamed the test the Kveim-Siltzbach test.

Before going to New York, Gerry had become romantically involved with Sheila Sherlock. Aged only 30, she was already a lecturer and honorary consultant at Hammersmith and a well-known hepatologist. In 1951 she spent several months touring American hospitals and medical schools – and fitted in a US motoring holiday with Gerry.

They married in December 1951 and bought a house in Sidmouth Road, Willesden. Two daughters – Mandy (Amanda Melys) and Auriole Zara – arrived in 1958 and 1962 respectively and, despite their parents’ hectic professional and social lives, were nurtured in a loving home in which Gerry was clearly the boss (to the initial surprise of those working for Sheila). In 1969 the family moved to York Terrace East, close to the RCP. They also had homes at Hythe, Cheltenham and Miami. Their happy marriage lasted just over 50 years and in the later stages they cherished not only their daughters, but also their granddaughters – Auriole’s children, Alice and Emily.

Following his return to London in 1951, Gerry worked as a senior registrar to Beaumont and Hugh Marriott [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.379] at the Middlesex. There he began classifying the clinical and radiological features of sarcoidosis and in 1956, to support his work, the Middlesex awarded him a Leverhulme research scholarship. By 1958 he had written seven papers on the disease, two being on its ocular manifestations, and had brought out his first book – The diagnosis and treatment of infections (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1957).

While still a senior registrar, Gerry invited the world’s leading ‘sarcoidologists’ to a symposium. Thirty-three participated (including about 20 working in Britain) in a three-day meeting at the Brompton from 30 June to 2 July 1958. He organised everything, raised the funds for travel and accommodation, and edited the proceedings. He had run a big meeting before. In 1957, as the Harveian Society’s secretary, he masterminded a congress at the Royal College of Surgeons, at which 800 delegates from 40 countries celebrated the tercentenary of William Harvey’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.I, p.24] death. Like the sarcoidosis meeting, it was a great success. The ‘sarcoidologists’ continued holding international meetings, and in Milan in 1987 the group metamorphosed into the World Association of Sarcoidosis and Other Granulomatous Disorders (WASOG). Gerry was the first president.

In 1959 he was appointed consultant physician at the Royal Northern Hospital and, appropriately for a Welshman, started there on St David’s Day (1 March) 1960. The Northern soon became a hotbed of postgraduate education for junior and senior hospital doctors and for GPs. He became dean there in 1968 (although the exact nature of the appointment is unclear). From 1963 he played a key role in a new medical ophthalmology unit – set up initially at Lambeth Hospital, but subsequently moved to St Thomas’ Hospital. In the same year, with Gordon Beckett [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.37] and Simon Behrman [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.23], he founded the Eye Physic Club. He practised privately at 149 Harley Street.

Gerry belonged to countless clubs and societies, and served as secretary and president of many of them. He joined some because they were Welsh, for example, the Cymmrodorion and the Glamorganshire Society. Others – like the Medical Society of London, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, the Royal Society of Medicine, the Harveian and Hunterian Societies – were social-professional bodies that gave vent to his gregarious nature. His longstanding interest in medical history explained his involvement with the Osler Club, the American Osler Society, the British Society for the History of Medicine and the History of Medicine Society of Wales.

Gerry’s bonhomie affected not only those at the Royal Northern, but also the staff of his wife’s unit at the Royal Free, where life was not just professionally and scientifically rewarding, but also, thanks in part to Gerry, great fun. He and Sheila ensured that the junior staff met the many distinguished individuals who came to speak or to attend meetings at the Free, and participated in departmental events.

The James’ hospitality was legendary – at their homes in London and Hythe, and at the many social events they ran. Gerry loved entertaining guests at the Athenaeum. He made sure people mixed at social gatherings by introducing them to each other. As he usually gave them the wrong names their conversations usually began by establishing each other’s identity. At large dinners he employed his ‘alphabet speech’; armed with a list of those present and their countries of origin, he called out the name of each country, starting with those at the beginning of the alphabet. The country’s representative had to stand up and speak a few words of the language or sing a few bars of a national song. It always went down well, particularly with those who had not previously experienced it.

At formal events Gerry and Sheila’s toast was always ‘the internationalism of medicine’. No one did more to promote it. They had friends everywhere and when they travelled the world, usually together, they mixed business with pleasure. They were welcomed everywhere, and Gerry and Sheila welcomed foreign visitors to London, both at work and at home. They were a particular help to young overseas doctors, especially those working with them at the Royal Free or the Royal Northern – and their own overseas contacts abroad meant that their own juniors were also welcomed when abroad.

Gerry was not of course to everyone’s taste. Some were discomfited by his constant exuberance and enthusiasm, and considered him unduly pushy. The fear that he might exert an undue influence may well explain why his wife failed to be elected as the first woman president of the RCP in the 1983 presidential election. But Gerry was by and large a kind, generous person. His old friend Alec Bearn [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] summed him up well when he wrote in 1987: ‘The truth is that Gerry is the kind of person whose warmth and friendship, although at times embarrassingly hyperbolic, is also genuine. His objective is to make everyone feel a great deal more important than they really are.’ It is not a bad epitaph.

Neil McIntyre

[Sarcoidoisis Vasculitis and Diffuse Lung Diseases 2010 27 83-4; The Lancet 2010 376 (9755) 1822;, 2010 341 6400]

(Volume XII, page web)

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