Lives of the fellows

Bryan Ashworth

b.5 May 1929 d.20 November 2012
MB ChB St And(1952) MRCP(1960) MRCP Edin(1960) MD(1969) FRCP Edin(1971) FRCP(1975) MA Wales(1993) PhD(2001)

Bryan Ashworth was a consultant neurologist in Edinburgh. He was born in Oundle, Northamptonshire. His father, Robert Bailey Rothwell Ashworth, was an engineer who had served as an observer in the Royal Air Force in the First World War, but later seemed rather unsettled. Bryan’s mother, Jessie, a more organised character, was the manageress of a hotel. Bryan was educated at Laxton and Oundle schools. He described his schooling as the least happy period of his life, but he did sufficiently well in examinations to receive a major county scholarship to see him through the University at St Andrews, where he read medicine, qualifying in 1952.

Clinical teaching at that period was at Dundee, where he had his first junior post as a house physician to Ian Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.262]. After further junior posts in the Manchester area, he was called up to serve in the RAMC for two years, mostly in West Africa, which he seemed to enjoy, but not enough to stay on as a regular.

Further medical registrar jobs were partly in neurology, first in Manchester and then in Bristol. As a senior registrar he went to Stockholm for the best part of a year as a Wellcome travelling fellow, working with Eric Kugelberg at the Karolinska Institute.

In 1967 he gained his first consultant post, as a general physician and lecturer in clinical neurology in Manchester, but this proved unsatisfactory: he felt he was not truly independent and he disliked his seniors in the university department. This led to his move to Edinburgh in 1971, where he was appointed as a consultant neurologist and a senior lecturer in medical neurology. He held this post until his retirement at the age of 63, two years prematurely.

During his time at Edinburgh he transferred partially to the Royal Infirmary from the north side of Princes Street, and was involved in the eventual move of all the neurosciences to the Western General Hospital, but also continued to function at the Royal Infirmary after the death of Clifford Mawdsley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.388].

He was fully stretched as a meticulous neurologist, but found time for many outside interests. He was particularly interested in neuro-ophthalmology and medical history (he chaired the Scottish Society of the History of Medicine from 2004 to 2007). He was less enthusiastic about medical administration and politics.

He was a bibliophile and was the honorary librarian of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from the early 1980s to 1992. He wrote more than 50 papers on neurological and medical history topics, and published or co-published four books: Clinical neuro-ophthalmology etc (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1973); Management of neurological disorders (London, Butterworths, 1985); The Bramwells of Edinburgh: a medical dynasty (Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 1986); and an autobiographical book, Striving towards elegance: medicine, books and business (Spennymoor: Memoir Club, 2003). He wrote extremely well and carefully, with almost unrestrained criticism of his colleagues.

In his personal relationships he seemed rather distant. He had no surviving family and his personality was bound to have been affected by his own medical history. As a final year medical student he noted the enlargement of one testicle, which was duly looked at by an eminent surgeon, who decided that it was really atrophy of the other testicle, and did nothing. Four years later, as a medical registrar, he became very ill with enlargement of one cervical gland and symptoms of retroperitoneal metastases. It originated from the seminoma, which had been ignored. In Manchester he came under the care of the pioneer of radiotherapy, Ralston Paterson, who subjected him to experimental megavoltage treatment for three months as an inpatient. The tumours disappeared and he managed to return to work at the end of six months. It must have been hard to live with. He wrote an anonymous account of his treatment and his feelings about it in the British Medical Journal, entitled ironically, ‘Miracle cure’ (Brit.med.J., 1995, 310, 538-9). He also wrote about his experience in his autobiographical book.

All along he had been concerned about medical ethics, and attended postgraduate study groups at the University of Wales, where he received an MA in the philosophy in health care in 1993 and a PhD in 2001.

Besides having been an excellent and devoted physician, trained at a time when neurology was more of a craft than a choice of neuro-investigations, it was good to have worked alongside him for 17 years.

E H Jellinek

(Volume XII, page web)

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