Lives of the fellows

Gabriel Laszlo

b.4 January 1936 d.16 May 2012
BChir Cantab(1960) MB(1961) MRCP(1964) MD(1972) FRCP(1979)

Gabriel Laszlo was a consultant physician in respiratory and general medicine at Bristol Royal Infirmary and became renowned as a clinical respiratory physiologist. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, but then educated in England after his parents emigrated to the UK. His father, George Calman Laszlo, was a consultant ophthalmologist in Bangor, Wales. Gabriel’s schooldays were spent as a boarder at Clifton College, Bristol. His undergraduate medical career was at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and St Mary’s Medical School, London.

After qualifying in 1960 and house jobs at St Mary’s, he progressed to a registrar post at the Postgraduate Medical School of London and then won a research fellowship to John Hopkins, where his career as a clinical respiratory physiologist took off. On his return to the UK he became a senior lecturer and honorary consultant in medicine at Middlesex Hospital, London, and ran a specialist respiratory physiology service. During this period he gained a wealth of experience in assessing breathlessness and his reputation as a clinical physiologist was established.

In 1974 he moved to Bristol, where he set up a respiratory physiology laboratory from scratch and built a loyal team around him, establishing a unit that has gone from strength to strength and is now a fitting legacy with a suite of well-equipped laboratories and a first rate team of physiologists who make a major contribution to research and education in respiratory physiology. Despite a heavy clinical workload, Gabriel continued to research in physiology, supervised several postgraduates doing physiology theses and produced a steady stream of papers. His research interests have included perception of the severity of asthma and the use of coded peak flow meters, standardisation of lung function tests, exercise physiology, non-invasive measurement of cardiac output, and educational articles on interpretation of lung function test results. He also wrote an excellent monograph on respiratory physiology, Pulmonary function – a guide for clinicians (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is still one of the most readable texts in the field.

After his retirement in 1998 he maintained his academic interests and continued to contribute to educational texts and review articles on respiratory physiology. He enjoyed reviewing books for the British Medical Journal. His writings were always entertaining; for example in a review in 2000 (BMJ 2000 321 1355) he commented that ‘New editions may be unwelcome, like friends' new wives or husbands, though adaptation is easy when the second version is much better than the first’ and ‘Reading this book is like attending ward rounds at the world's greatest teaching hospitals, with the added advantage that these teachers do see patients from time to time.’

Gabriel won the affection of his patients and all those who worked with him through his charming and caring personality. He was particularly supportive of junior doctors and took an intense interest in their training needs. In this respect he was several decades ahead of his time in fulfilling the role of an educational supervisor long before this designation and the importance of properly planned and supervised training programmes had been recognised. His support for them in presenting their research at meetings is well illustrated at a meeting where one of his juniors was asked somewhat aggressively by a member of the audience to show that their conclusions were supported by evidence based medicine (a fairly new concept at this time). Sensing after a while that the junior doctor was becoming flustered and that the tension in the room was beginning to rise, Gabriel, always the skilful diplomat, announced that this case was based on ‘self-evidence based medicine’ – and that it was time to move on.

Gabriel simply enjoyed the practice of medicine, as it is encapsulated in the concept of both science and art plus effective interaction with the patient. His empathy for the patient is illustrated by the tribute made to him by one of his patients who was a television producer and made a documentary programme about Gabriel for BBC Television.

Gabriel made a major contribution to the work of the British Thoracic Society, the National Asthma Campaign (now Asthma UK), Bristol Medical School and many regional bodies. He was chairman/chairman elect of the hospital medical committee from 1992 to 1997 and his period of tenure included the very difficult years that led up to the Bristol paediatric heart surgery inquiry.

He married Olwen Parry in 1962 and they had two sons, David and Christopher. Olwen is now retired from working as a GP in Bristol and was particularly involved with student health for Bristol University. Outside of medicine, Gabriel was an accomplished musician and for many years played cello in the Bristol Concert Orchestra. His musical talents extended beyond merely playing musical instruments however. On his return from his research fellowship in the United States, having taken his family with him and travelled around the states in a camper van, some luggage had to give way to a large crate containing components from which he built and then played a harpsichord.

Gabriel was very unlucky with his health and suffered several severe illnesses in his later years. He became severely incapacitated physically in the last few years, but fortunately lost none of his considerable academic agility and this sustained his morale through physical symptoms that would have defeated most of us. His laptop became a major focus of his life and he continued to read and write avidly on a wide range of subjects.

Gabriel will be fondly remembered as a doctor who combined intellect with humanity. His work benefitted numerous patients and he influenced the careers of generations of students, trainees, research fellows and his consultant colleagues. He was the perfect gentleman, showing charm, kindness, warmth and respect to everyone. His memorial service, attended by several hundred of his medical colleagues and friends, was held in the chapel of his old school, Clifton College.

Martin Hetzel
James Catterall

(Volume XII, page web)

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