Lives of the fellows

Cyril Geoffrey Arthur Thomas

b.28 August 1924 d.17 January 2012
BA Oxon(1945) BM BCh(1948) MRCP(1952) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1970) FRCP(1987)

Cyril Geoffrey Arthur Thomas was a consultant microbiologist in Norwich. Born in Clapham, south London, his was a medical family. Both his father, Cyril James Thomas, and his mother, Dorothy Spencer née Chamberlain, were doctors. He was the eldest son and, while he was growing up, the family lived in houses attached to the various mental hospitals at which his father was a psychiatrist – namely Lancaster, Whittington, Wakefield and Knowle. Educated at Wakefield and Portsmouth Grammar Schools, he also attended Charterhouse School as a wartime evacuee.

Enrolling at Balliol College, Oxford in 1942 to study medicine, he made the most of his time there. Many fellow students only attended for a short time before enlisting in the services. He was a friend of Tom Bourdillon, the mountaineer who was part of Sir Edmund Hillary’s successful Everest expedition, and together they climbed the Oxford roofs. Another exploit was to take a four man crew in an Oxford punt down a tunnel that runs under the centre of Oxford called the Carfax drain. In 1945 he won the Theodore William scholarship in pathology and also obtained a university entrance scholarship to St Thomas’ Hospital. Qualifying in 1948, he did house jobs at St Thomas’ for two years before joining the RAF medical branch to do his National Service.

Demobilised in 1952, he returned to St Thomas’ as a lecturer in chemical pathology for a year and then moved to lecuring in bacteriology. Awarded the Dr John Radcliffe travelling fellowship by University College, Oxford, he spent a year at the University of Rochester, New York, USA from 1954 to 1955, studying tissue culture as a postdoctoral fellow in bacteriology. On his return, he joined the staff of Guy’s Hospital Medical School at a lecturer in bacteriology.

In 1958 he became senior lecturer in clinical pathology at Guy’s and three years later, in 1961, was appointed the first consultant microbiologist to the Norwich District Health Authority. Also, in 1974, he was made honorary consultant microbiologist to the Public Health Laboratory Service. He became well known in the area as he toured the numerous hospitals and nursing homes in the region checking the hygiene in their operating theatres, kitchens and laundries. His cars always bore the distinct number plate PUO 1 – standing for ‘pyrexia of unknown origin’. It was claimed that at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital he allowed the theatre sister to keep a cat in the operating theatres. The animal was, reputedly, an excellent mouser (and mice had been discovered in the recovery rooms) but one of the surgeons, a stickler for hygiene, was only informed of the creature’s presence after he had retired. He also turned a blind eye to the swallows that flew in and out of the clerestory windows in the kitchens of Kelling Hospital, justifying their presence near food preparation on the grounds that they caught the midges.

A member of numerous committees, he was also chairman of the hospital’s consultant staff committee in 1983 and president of the Norwich Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1986. He was remembered for having initiated a prize for any technician who spotted a rare or unusual condition such as amoebic abscess which usually occurred in developing countries. It was found to be relatively common in the area due to the return of members of the Norfolk Regiment who had been captured by the Japanese to work on the Burma Railway.

The editor of the bacteriology section of an important scientific journal, he first published the textbook Bacteriology (London, Bailliere, Tindall and Cox) in 1964. Renamed Medical microbiology it became extremely popular with medical students and by the 6th edition, which was issued in 1988, it had sold over 100,000 copies.

After retiring in 1988, he was able to devote himself to three main enthusiasms: medical education, train travel and his pet tortoises.

In 1949 he married Barbara Elizabeth née Porritt of East Leake, near Loughborough. His best man, Oliver Smithies, was a fellow student who subsequently shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2007 for his work on DNA. Barbara (whom he always called ‘Porritt’) was an anaesthetist and they had three children. When he died from cardiovascular disease, she survived him, together with their son William, daughter Amanda, and four grandchildren. Their daughter Elizabeth predeceased him.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2012 344 1423 www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e1423 - accessed 6 October 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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