Lives of the fellows

Thomas Rodger Edward Pilkington

b.30 November 1921 d.8 February 2011
MB BS Lond(1945) MRCP(1946) MD(1949) FRCP(1965)

Tom Pilkington was a physician at St George’s Hospital, London, initially at Hyde Park Corner, and later in Tooting, for over 35 years. He was born in Kaiserslautern in the Rhineland, Germany, and his early years were shaped by the troubled history of the 1930s. His mother, Stephanie Pilkington, was a singer who went to Germany after the First World War. There she met his father, the Jewish professional musician and composer Friedrich Berend (who was later to conduct the Welsh National Opera).

The Nazis came to power in 1933 when Tom was 11 years old and Jewish citizens faced increasing difficulties. Eventually the family started to be blackmailed by the SS for money (Tom remembers it being hidden in the kitchen oven). So, in 1936, his mother decided they had to leave Germany and return to England. Tom, who could speak very little English when he arrived, completed his education at a boarding school, Buxton College, in Derbyshire. The school magazine described him in his final year as ‘the maestro leader of the school orchestra’. He returned to Germany on a cycling holiday in 1939, only months before war with Germany was declared, but in view of the worsening situation had to cut short his visit.

Having decided on a career in medicine, he was admitted to the Middlesex Hospital Medical School and qualified in 1945. On completing his training, he did his National Service in the RAF and was posted to Hamburg. By this time his English was perfect and no one was aware of his German origins. He then undertook junior medical posts at his teaching hospital, before being recruited to St George’s Hyde Park Corner in 1956, where he was a lecturer to Hugh Gainsborough [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.197]. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Chicago and Los Angeles, before being appointed as a senior lecturer and honorary consultant at St George’s Hospital and Medical School in 1958. His career was spent within the St George’s group of hospitals at Hyde Park Corner, St James’ in Balham and at Tooting, combining full time clinical practice with teaching and research.

Tom specialised in metabolic medicine, with an interest in lipids, diabetes and obesity, an interest stimulated by Hugh Gainsborough. Together they disproved the notion that the rate of weight loss in obesity depended on whether a given energy intake was provided as fat or carbohydrate. Tom’s scientific and clinical research extended through cholesterol and triglyceride synthesis, the influence of dietary manipulation on energy balance to the management of extreme obesity. He helped to pioneer the use of bariatric surgery for severe obesity in this country, collaborating with his surgical colleague Jean-Claude Gazet in developing jejuno-ileal bypass surgery as a treatment for morbidly obese patients. Tom published widely and was highly cited; his academic contributions were recognised by his appointment to a University of London personal chair in 1971.

He was a committed physician, working hard for the benefit of his patients and was a staunch defender of the principles of the NHS. Tom also took great pleasure from clinical teaching. He enjoyed educating and entertaining medical students and junior doctors, in his own distinctive style. Challenging, controversial and entertaining, he took a real interest in his juniors, forming lasting relationships so that many remained friends. Charmian Newton, later a colleague, recalls how she first became aware of him when she was a medical student at Westminster Medical School. Her St George's medical student flatmate gave vivid descriptions of Pilkington’s idiosyncratic teaching rounds. ‘We didn't have anyone quite like that at staid Westminster, which is perhaps why it predeceased him by many years.’

Tom’s career at St George’s coincided with great changes both nationally in medicine with the introduction of the NHS in 1948 and in the development of St George’s. He, together with other senior figures, was a key player in the transition of St George’s Hospital and Medical School from a small and cosy backwater at Hyde Park Corner with only a handful of clinical students, to one of Europe’s largest modern teaching hospitals adjoining the multidisciplinary university campus it is today. St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner finally closed in 1980, but had the move to south west London not been made earlier, in all probability the medical school would have been closed in the reforms to London medical education of the 1980s.

In addition to his clinical and academic duties, he played an important role in the management of the hospital as medical director, and was an influential figure in the early, turbulent, years of the medical school at Tooting. Those who knew him will remember him as stubborn and strong-willed. He loved gossip and medico-political intrigue, was occasionally outrageous, but his irreverent and subversive personality endeared him to many. ‘Pilk’ inspired the loyalty and affection of his colleagues, and he was particularly supportive and generous to those who worked with and for him.

He met his future wife Pamela in 1952 while both were working at St George’s Hyde Park Corner. Pamela had recently qualified in medicine at St George’s (one of only a handful of students graduating each year at that time), where she was working as a resident clinical pathologist, and they married in 1953. Family legend has it that after a weekend in Brighton, Tom, a Wagner opera enthusiast, spent the remainder of the honeymoon with friends at Bayreuth, Germany, while Pam remained at home. Whatever the truth of this story, he had a passion for chamber music and opera, which must have been in his genes. He played violin in a variety of chamber groups, quartets and trios right up to the end, despite increasing deafness. Only a week before his final illness he enjoyed a performance of The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden with his family.

Tom was president of Integrated Neurological Services, a charity dedicated to providing long term therapeutic and social support to people in the local community with neurological conditions. He would have described himself as a secular person, with no religious faith, and was progressive and liberal in his outlook. His commitment to the NHS he cherished, and to teaching, extended to the fact that he bequeathed his body to the London Anatomy Office and donated his corneas for transplant. As a result, there was no funeral, which was in keeping with his wish to have as little fuss as possible. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, two sons and 12 grandchildren.

Douglas Maxwell

(Volume XII, page web)

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