Lives of the fellows

Celia Mary Oakley

b.14 May 1931 d.17 November 2014
MRCS LRCP(1954) MB BS Lond(1954) MRCP(1956) MD(1965) FRCP(1970) FACC(1972) FESC

Celia Oakley, a professor at the Imperial School of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, London, and one of the first female cardiologists in the UK, was widely considered one of the most outstanding clinical cardiologists of her time. She was born in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, the daughter of Arthur Howard Oakley, a bank manager, and Minnie Isabel Oakley née Stevenson. She was educated at Berkhamsted School and then studied medicine at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, qualifying in 1954.

She was a house physician and house surgeon at the Royal Free and then became a house physician to the legendary Paul Wood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.456] at the Brompton Hospital. There is no doubt that Wood was perhaps the greatest influence on Celia’s cardiological training and development; (later Sir) Roger Bannister was her co-houseman in those heady days. She described Wood as ‘…a great boss. He would never openly challenge your findings, but if he disagreed he would record his (own) with the date.’ After working with Wood at the Brompton Hospital, she moved to the National Hospital, Queen Square, for a year, and then to the Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital, where she spent the rest of her career. She was a registrar to John Goodwin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.226] and was part of the team that coined the term ‘hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy’. Though she was not sure who exactly proposed the name, with typical modesty she admitted that it was not her, though she was present at the time.

Celia Oakley worked her way up after a short mandatory spell in the United States, as a research fellow at the cardiopulmonary laboratory at the University of Rochester, to become a consultant working with John Goodwin. Whilst in the United States she wrote her MD thesis on pulmonary blood volume in humans and subsequently developed an interest in pulmonary hypertension, valvular heart disease and congenital heart disease. These were indeed exciting times for cardiology at the Hammersmith with the team of Goodwin and Oakley, as well as the development of cardiopulmonary bypass and open heart surgery, which was pioneered at the Hammersmith at that time.

In 1991 Oakley was appointed to a personal chair at the Hammersmith, by which time she had served on the Committee on Safety of Medicines. She was a founding fellow of the European Society of Cardiology and was chairman (from 1995 to 1998) of the Society’s working group on valve disease and of the task force on the management of heart disease in pregnancy (the guidelines were published in 2003).

After 20 years working full time at Hammersmith she turned her hand to private practice for one day a week. Whilst of course she was successful at this because she was an outstanding doctor and diagnostician, it was not a favoured environment and she was always more at home at the academic milieu of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. She admitted: ‘There is a definite downside to the private sector – the temptation to make money.’

Celia Oakley practised medicine before the imaging revolution and relied on her clinical skills to make complex diagnoses. However, she embraced change and in particular integrated new techniques of echocardiography and coronary angiography into her practice.

After she retired from full-time practice she continued to see a few private patients and carry out some medico-legal work. In 2004 she received the Laennec Master Clinician award from the American Heart Association and in 2006 she was awarded the Mackenzie medal of the British Cardiovascular Society for services to British cardiology.

Celia Oakley’s husband, Ron Pridie, whom she married in 1950, was a pioneer in echocardiography, worked at Harefield Hospital, and predeceased her. Whilst Celia was always the extrovert and the one with the international reputation, the loss of her husband took an immeasurable toll on her in the later years of her life. She was survived by their two daughters and four grandchildren.

Kim Fox

[Circulation. 2010;121:f13-f16 – accessed 5 October 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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