Lives of the fellows

Ronald Hinchcliffe

b.20 February 1926 d.5 January 2011
BSc Manchester(1947) MB ChB(1950) MRCS LRCP(1950) MD(1955) PhD Lond(1965) MRCP Edin(1970) FRCP Edin( FRCP(1982)

Ronald Hinchcliffe was professor of audiological medicine at the Institute of Laryngology and Otology at the University of London. Responsible for the establishment of what is now known as audiovestibular medicine as a specialty, he was a pioneer in the systematic scientific study of disorders of hearing and balance.

Born Bolton, Lancashire, he was the son of Charles Hinchcliffe, a plumber. Educated at Bolton School, he turned down a place at Cambridge and chose instead to study medicine and physiology at Manchester University and the Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI). Qualifying in 1950, he did house jobs at the MRI before joining the RAF the following year to do his National Service and indulge his twin passions of research and travel. Becoming a specialist in aviation physiology, he was eventually appointed officer in charge of the RAF acoustics laboratory and worked on hearing protectors, reaching the rank of squadron leader.

Demobilised in 1955, he took up a position at the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Wernher research unit at King’s College Hospital and, during his time there, spent a year on a Wernher travelling fellowship at the psychoacoustics laboratory at Harvard University from 1955 to 1956. While there he was influenced by the work of Smithy Stevens which led to his lifelong interest in scaling techniques. On his return to the UK, he continued his work as a member of the MRC’s scientific staff and was strongly influenced by Archie Cochrane [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.95] who encouraged his interest in evidence based medical practice. Later he used this work in population studies quantifying the effects of noise on hearing. He became an expert in the field and was involved in many early medico-legal cases involving noise induced hearing loss – so much so that he actually studied law in order to better understand the legal process.

He was invited to return to the US in 1960, to take up a post as assistant (later associate) professor at the University of Iowa, which was fast becoming an important centre for American audiology. While there he principally concentrated on the psychological and physical aspects of Ménière’s disease – one of his friends from that time vividly recalled Hinchcliffe running water at different temperatures into his colleague’s ears and asking them to rate how dizzy they became.

In 1963 he was appointed a consultant at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital and there established a vestibular research laboratory. Four years later he co-founded the British Society of Audiology and, ten years after that, in 1977, the British Association of Audiological Physicians. In the same year he was awarded personal chair in audiological medicine at London University. In the early 1970s the Labour MP, Jack Ashley, who was himself deaf, was working to reveal the inadequate nature of the NHS services for those suffering hearing loss and this gave Hinchcliffe the opportunity to stress the importance of the new specialty he was introducing. It was to be his lasting legacy that he raised the profile of an area of medicine that had been previously overlooked and his work on age-related hearing loss remains the most cited on this condition.

Throughout his career he travelled widely conducting research into hearing loss using the epidemiological baseline that he had early adopted. Examples of such work included studies in West Africa where he showed the neurotoxic effects of inadequately cooked cassava on hearing and balance and in Jamaica where he identified hearing loss in old age as a result of a variety of surdogens. He lectured regularly in China, Egypt, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, India and throughout Europe. Secretary-general of the International Society of Audiology from 1972 to 1990, he was later its president. He also co-founded the International Association of Physicians in Audiology in 1980. Four years later he provided key evidence to the ruling by Justice Mustill that employers would have to demonstrate their ability to protect their worker’s hearing.

Outside medicine he enjoyed skiing and sailing.

In 1953 he married Doreen née Lord; they divorced in 1980. Secondly, in 2009, he married Siew Guat Ong who had been his partner since 1986 and she survived him.

RCP editor

[The Guardian; The Telegraph]

(Volume XII, page web)

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