Lives of the fellows

George Russell

b.2 July 1936 d.1 June 2012
MB ChB Aberd(1959) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1977) FRCP Edin(1993) FRCPCH(1996)

George Russell was a consultant paediatrician to the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital from 1969 to 1996. Thereafter, he was a senior lecturer and subsequently professor of paediatrics in the department of child health, University of Aberdeen, from 1996 to 2001. He was born in Insch, Aberdeenshire, the son of another George Russell. He studied medicine from 1953 to 1959 at the University of Aberdeen, during which time he won a number of awards, including the class prize in child health. His paediatric career began at the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital in 1960. After junior staff appointments in Aberdeen, he spent two years as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow at the University of Colorado, Denver, USA, studying under the supervision of Ernest Cotton, Gerd Cropp and Henry Kemp. He then returned to Aberdeen, taking up a post as a lecturer in child health.

During his time in Denver he evaluated the acute treatment of neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) and developed new techniques in the emerging and technically challenging field of the measurement of lung mechanics and pulmonary blood flow in term and preterm babies. These were then also applied to the study of infants with RDS. When later asked why he chose respiratory medicine as a special interest, he characteristically replied: ‘I thought I had better look at something that there was plenty of’.

On his return to Aberdeen, he developed a research programme in this field, which he then applied (in collaboration with Mike Tunstall) to the development of techniques of artificial ventilation of the newborn. Although routine nowadays, he was among the first to use the technique in this age group. He and Tunstall were known by their research fellows as ‘people who liked to tinker with gadgets’. One remembers: ‘you would go to the laboratory and there would be gadgets and clamps and bits of tubing all around’. He subsequently published several landmark papers, which not only established the basic treatment regimes in use today, but also demonstrated that the quality of survival thereafter was excellent. He was one of the first to describe ‘artificial grunting’, now known as continuous positive airway pressure as a useful additional supportive measure for babies with respiratory problems.

He also researched feeding regimes in preterm babies, describing the standard policy of early starvation at the time as ‘entirely un-physiological’. He was able to show that early high calorie nasogastric feeding was not only beneficial in avoiding dangerous hypoglycaemia, but also that the feeds were well tolerated and not adversely detrimental to gastrointestinal function. Other contributions to perinatal medicine included studies of gestational diabetes and its effects on fetal growth, development and morbidity. He was a founder member and later life fellow of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine.

George went on to conduct landmark studies into the long-term epidemiology of asthma in childhood. These continued earlier ones based on the relatively static population of the north of Scotland and demonstrated the steady rise in asthma prevalence over several decades. Studies including the rural Highland population further documented this rise in asthma, even in such non-urban, non-polluted areas of the country. Parallel studies documented the prevalence of persistent nocturnal cough and the relationships between wheeze, cough and atopy in these populations. He also studied the effects of inhaled corticosteroids on adrenal function and growth in asthmatic children.

George set up and supervised services for cystic fibrosis in his region. He was a founder member of the Scottish Cystic Fibrosis Group. He was the first to show (in 1970) that a major part of the primary pathology in cystic fibrosis is a result of sputum hyperviscosity due to its excess DNA content. This finding eventually led, many years later, to the introduction of DNase as a major treatment for the condition. He was a founder member of the British Paediatric Respiratory Group (now the British Paediatric Respiratory Society) and was given a life-time achievement award by the society in 2009 for his major contributions to the sub-specialty.

George was one of the last and most outstanding general paediatricians of his time. He was able to combine a major clinical commitment with a continuous output of high quality academic papers, which constantly evaluated and underpinned his clinical practice, long before ‘evidence-based medicine’ became fashionable. He made significant contributions to paediatric knowledge in the clinically difficult areas of recurrent headache, migraine and chronic abdominal pain. He also had an interest in metabolic diseases, setting up and running one of the first metabolic clinics in the UK.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1993 for outstanding contributions to medicine. He was an associate editor of Archives of Disease in Childhood for several years and wrote several distinguished editorials for the journal on all of the subjects in which he had special expertise. A colleague said: ‘he could take a big topic, analyse it, then clearly and concisely set out the pros and cons’.

George was made a professor in 2001. Throughout his career, teaching and training were a major priority. Many academic and specialist paediatricians throughout the United Kingdom and abroad owe their enthusiasm, foundations in the field and much of their academic success to his inspirational research, teaching and leadership. He was in constant demand both nationally and internationally to lecture on the many areas of his clinical expertise. This duty he willingly fulfilled with characteristic enthusiasm. Those who worked with him describe ‘his infinite patience and willingness to share his time and intellectual rigour’. One commented: ‘he was always open and receptive, nothing was too much trouble and he would always go the extra mile, especially for his patients and junior colleagues’. Another summed him up: ‘he was a joy, an absolute star to work with’. Even after retirement from the NHS, his academic and research output continued unabated.

Outside medicine, apart from his family, George’s greatest loves in life were cats, many of whom he saved from being unwanted strays, and his joy in the outdoor life of his native Scotland, especially Aberdeenshire.

He was survived by his wife Gillian (‘Gill’) Douglas Russell née Simpson, whom he married in 1962, two sons, two daughters and three grandchildren.

Robert Dinwiddie

[The Scotsman 6 June 2012; The Lancet vol 380 issue 9842 page 644 18 August 2012]

(Volume XII, page web)

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