Lives of the fellows

Stanley Joseph Steel

b.17 October 1921 d.29 June 2015
MRCS LRCP(1944) MB BS Lond(1944) MD(1949) MRCP(1950) FRCP(1974)

Stanley Steel was a consultant physician at the London Chest Hospital and in Romford. He was a gifted chest physician, keen sportsman and devoted family man. Gentle, empathetic and with a great sense of humour, my father had a natural gift for making friends and was loved by all who knew him. A polymath who wore his knowledge lightly, he was a perfectionist who loved to know how things worked and to make them work better; traits that would bear fruit in his medical career.

He had an unusual upbringing in that his parents, Douglas David Pinner Steel and Mina Victoria Steel (née Meller), were proprietors of a three-star hotel in Bournemouth, the Miramar. It was here that he grew up with his younger brother Anthony (also destined for a medical career, as a surgeon) and where the boys had, by all accounts, an idyllic childhood by the sea.

My father went to Bradfield College and subsequently studied medicine at London University and St Mary's Hospital, where he became a house physician after gaining his MB BS in 1944. He then joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, with whom he was posted to Burma, spending several months in action with the Field Ambulance, 82nd West African Division. Next he was posted to India, where, despite his fear of heights, he joined the Parachute Field Ambulance, 2nd Indian Airborne Division. He was demobilised in 1947 with a severe case of jaundice, not, however, before he had taught himself how to cook a mean curry by watching the Indian Army chefs; a skill he put to good use for the rest of his life.

After the war he became a medical registrar at St Mary’s, where he gained his MD in 1949. He subsequently trained as a chest physician at the Brompton Hospital, before transferring to Addenbrooke’s Hospital as a medical registrar in 1952. In 1954, he joined Hammersmith Chest Clinic, where he met my mother, Räili Elisabet Luste, a Finnish student nurse, whom he married in 1957. My brother Brian and I were born in 1957 and 1959 respectively. In 1955, Stanley became a senior medical registrar at the London Chest Hospital. In 1964 he was appointed as a consultant physician with a special interest in chest diseases for the Romford Group of Hospitals and as a clinical assistant at the London Chest Hospital. From 1971 he was also a consultant physician at the London Chest Hospital.

During the 1960s, my father worked with a colleague, D P Winstanley, on the invention for which he would become internationally recognised: a procedure for performing lung biopsies using a high speed air drill fitted with a specially-designed 2.1 mm bore hollow needle, which became known as the Steel trephine. Writing about their results in 1969, my father noted that the procedure was quick and painless and could be performed out of theatre, in lieu of an open biopsy. The Steel trephine also had the advantage over other needle biopsies of obtaining samples without crushing the tissue, leading to very high success rates: over the course of 119 consecutive biopsies, there was a 93 per cent success rate with 85 per cent of results proving diagnostically significant (‘Trephine biopsy of the lung and pleura’, Thorax, 1969 Sep; 24[5]: 576–584).

The Steel trephine gained my father international recognition, and during the 1970s he lectured on it widely in the United States and Europe. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1974. He remained at the London Chest Hospital until his retirement from the NHS and remained in private practice until 1991, as a leading expert in the diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related diseases. He loved his work and took it very seriously, and he wanted to share his skills and knowledge for as long as he could.

Despite his distinguished career, my father was far too modest to speak of his own accomplishments in his non-professional life, preferring instead to share his many passions for jazz, sport, steam engines, politics and history. A brilliant listener who always saw the funny side of things, he was wonderful company, and was never happier than when mooching about in his ancient ‘gardening’ trousers, tending a barbeque or just relaxing with family and friends.

He was an active member of the Knightsbridge Association and a member of the Queen's Club in London, where he spent many hours patiently teaching me and my brother how to play tennis. Most of our holidays were spent in Bournemouth, where we had immense fun pursuing an endless round of tennis, golf, swimming and sailing. After his retirement, my father moved back to Bournemouth to live in my grandmother's house, next door to the Hotel Miramar. In later life he indulged in another great passion – bridge – at which, despite becoming expert, he remained the most forgiving and understanding of partners. When my mother became ill, he nursed her with the devotion typical of him until her death in 2010, and continued to live independently in the house until his own death. Of all his many gifts, my father's greatest was his capacity for love, and he was himself the most loveable of men.

Carolyn Steel

(Volume XII, page web)

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