Lives of the fellows

Richard Edward Rossall

b.11 January 1926 d.28 November 2012
BSc Leeds(1947) MB ChB(1950) MRCP(1952) MD(1958) FRCP(1973) FRCPC

Richard Edward Rossall (known as ‘Dick’) was head of the department of cardiology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. He was born in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, the son of Robert Edward and Lillian Rossall née Helliwell. As Dick grew up, he discovered a passion for jazz piano, an interest, together with climbing, that he maintained well into his older years. As a result of a number of scholarships he funded his medical education at Leeds University where, after graduating in 1950, he went on to get his MD, focusing on the clinical and pathological aspects of mitral valve disease. Part of his postgraduate training was at the Hammersmith Hospital in London. It was here that he met Joan Howes, who eventually became his wife.

After completion of his MD thesis and passing the MRCP at his first attempt, Dick served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a junior medical specialist and spent some time in post-war Hanover, before returning to England.

His future took on a different course after he accepted an offer to teach and practice at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, which became his home for the rest of his life. With their two sons, Steve and Jon, Dick and Joan went to Edmonton in 1957 to begin their new life in Canada. They arrived on a typically cold wintery November day, but were quickly overwhelmed by the warmth and kindness of the local community, a community they grew to become very much a part of over the subsequent decades.

Dick Rossall remained on the staff at the University of Alberta for 34 years. He worked his way up the academic ranks and went on to become head of the University of Alberta’s cardiology division for 19 years. It was under his watch that the university began its postgraduate training program in cardiology, which he helped create in 1961. Many of those who trained under him went on to become illustrious physicians in Canada and abroad, some continuing to work at the University of Alberta Hospital with the now growing department of cardiology.

Dick Rossall had a passion for music and played the piano largely by ear – a talent that may have helped him recognise how challenging medical students find cardiac auscultation, particularly as they begin to appreciate the subtleties of recognising abnormalities of heart sounds. In 1969 Dick applied for a Heart and Stroke Foundation grant to create a computer model to help catalogue not only heart sounds, but also electrocardiograms and radiologic investigations of cardiac patients. Despite the absence of any prior experience in computing technology, he went on to develop – with the help of a computer programmer at the University of Alberta – a state of the art teaching computer that eventually became an indispensable tool in teaching medical students the art of cardiac auscultation.

Using a touch screen (one of the earliest of its kind), the computer – named ‘CARDI’ – was a unique teaching tool, and in 1980 Rossall went on a six-month global lecture tour to showcase his creation. It was adopted by teaching faculties in numerous countries across the world and also by the US Navy. Accompanying the teaching tool was a booklet, which described the basics of good cardiac examination. Copies of this booklet are still available to medical students in the developing world, as a result of a generous donation by Dick of several copies to a local Rotary Club, which helped distribute them free of charge in East Africa.

Apart from music and his profession, at which he excelled as a master clinician with superb bedside teaching skills, Dick Rossall also loved climbing. He climbed his first hills near Lytham St Annes and eventually went on to scale mountains on every continent except Antarctica. One of his more memorable trips was the one he took to Nepal as he walked many trails alongside the Himalaya mountains. He was an exceptionally good photographer, who also took some memorable photographs of the local scenery during his visits abroad.

Following his retirement from active practice in 1991, Rossall continued to work well into his eighties, reading ECGs and acting as an adviser for the local Workers’ Compensation Board. He also sat on the City of Edmonton’s advisory board for the disabled to help improve wheelchair accessibility and also consulted in legal cases, often working in this area with his son Jon, a lawyer who specialised in medical law.

Following his return from Nepal, he told a colleague: ‘apart from my family, I have three loves in life: medicine, music and mountains’. His first love was always for his family, and as an extension of this he was always very kind to his junior colleagues, helping some of them during difficult times in their own careers and lives with whatever advice and support he was able to share.

Following his death at the age of 86 an event to celebrate his life was held at a facility he loved to visit regularly, the Faculty Club at the University of Alberta. Friends honoured him and the message that particularly came through was how kind and generous he had always been to those still developing their careers and how exceptional a teacher he had been. Many of his students referred to him as ‘the man with the golden ears’, out of respect for his masterly auscultatory skills and teaching abilities. His appointment as the Queen’s designated cardiologist during the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton was a testament to the respect he enjoyed in the medical community.

A recipient of many honours in recognition of his contributions, Dick passed away after a short illness and died with his family members at his side.

Zaheer Lakhani

(Volume XII, page web)

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