Lives of the fellows

John Hugh Ross

b.3 August 1920 d.8 July 2016
MC(1945) BA Cantab(1947) MB BChir(1950) DObst RCOG(1952) MRCP(1953) MD(1959) FRCP(1970)

John Ross was a consultant physician in Hereford. He grew up in Hampstead, London, the son of Robert Ross and Gladys Ross (née Hirschland), who were non-practising Jews of German origin and who had their children baptised as Anglicans. His father, who had established an import business, had changed the family name from Rosenheim when he enlisted in the British Army in 1915. John was a second cousin of Lord Max Rosenheim [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.394] and a cousin once removed of the biochemist Otto Rosenheim, who helped elucidate the structure of steroids and vitamin D. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and had intended to read medicine, but switched to zoology after winning an exhibition in that subject to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1939.

After enlisting in the Army in 1940, he served as an artillery officer and then as a staff captain in the Middle East. Finding the latter post tedious, he volunteered for the Special Operations Executive in 1944. His activities as an agent with the Italian resistance in the Dolomites have been recorded in his obituary in The Times, in the secret war gallery at the Imperial War Museum and in several books. The citation for the award of his Military Cross noted that no conditions could have been more difficult for partisan work. Nevertheless, the partisans who John trained and led inflicted heavy casualties while resisting a strong German attack. They then liberated several areas before the arrival of Allied troops, took 10,000 enemy prisoners and captured large quantities of material. The citation recorded that John’s judgement and advice were always sound and that he set an example of devotion to duty to all with whom he came in contact. These attributes were to be a feature of John’s whole life, as were the humility and the enormous sense of social responsibility which were also a legacy of his wartime experiences. More important to him than the Military Cross were the honorary citizenships of Belluno and Feltre, where he was always given an official welcome when he returned to meet old comrades and friends. Until frailty supervened, he was to be seen most years at the Remembrance Day service in Hereford, inconspicuous towards the back of the crowd. Like other war veterans John would be wearing his medals but, unlike the others, he would be wearing his medals under his overcoat. When he moved one might catch a brief glimpse of the Military Cross behind the lapel of his coat. He wore his medals because it was right and proper so to do when remembering his colleagues on a formal occasion, but he saw no need to exhibit the evidence of his own bravery.

John returned from the war determined to be a force for good. Life was far from easy for him. His father was dying of cancer and the business had gone bankrupt, leaving the family in greatly reduced circumstances, but John did not let the grass grow under his feet. Within two years he had taken first class honours in natural sciences at Cambridge and won a scholarship to the London Hospital. After qualifying, he worked for 11 years at the London and its associated hospitals. Some of his students there kept in touch throughout his long life. During this time, he obtained his doctorate and pioneered the use of percutaneous kidney biopsy in Britain, having learned the technique from R C Muehrcke of Chicago when the latter visited London in 1956. John developed his own modification of the Vim-Silverman needle, which improved the likelihood of obtaining a successful biopsy, and he visited hospitals around the country to teach the technique. During this time, he also taught a weekly physiology tutorial in Cambridge and helped with renal work at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

John found himself applying for consultant posts at a time when there was a dearth of such opportunities and the medical brain drain was at its peak. Younger men with careers unimpeded by the war were joining the job market and, despite an excellent CV, John was also hampered by a severe attack of viral meningoencephalitis. Nearing the age of 40 and with a young family to support, he considered emigrating to Australia but, after nine unsuccessful interviews, was finally appointed as a general physician in Hereford. Here he soon developed a reputation as a wise and outstanding clinician covering all aspects of general internal medicine.

His clinical abilities were matched by his qualities as a leader. Everyone, be they patients, doctors, nurses, students or porters, was made to feel that their opinions mattered. The esprit de corps which he engendered among both hospital doctors and general practitioners enhanced Herefordshire’s reputation as a happy and stimulating place in which to practise medicine, and thereby encouraged many trainees to return to permanent posts. With his formidable intellect and clarity of mind he could sift through muddles which others found impenetrable; and with his energy and sense of purpose he could make things happen more quickly than anyone else. As area postgraduate director and regional adviser for the Royal College of Physicians he was immensely respected throughout the West Midlands and beyond. His recognition of the importance of postgraduate education made him the initiator and driving force behind the fundraising and planning for the Hereford Postgraduate Medical Centre, which bears his name and which was one of the earliest and best designed in the West Midlands. With others he was also instrumental in obtaining new staff accommodation and the hospital’s first critical care unit/intensive treatment unit. John was still pursuing academic research and publishing scientific papers in the five years preceding his retirement in 1985.

In retirement he published on medical education and training, and he spent two months helping in a medical college in a remote part of China. Retirement also provided more time for portrait painting, for music and for his interests in medical biography and history, on which he published several papers, the last only two months before his death. He had founded the Hereford Hospital Orchestra, but was later deprived of the joy of music by increasingly profound deafness. Above all, retirement allowed him to pursue his lifelong interest in all forms of wildlife, but especially in planaria and freshwater crustaceans. John was a founding member and vice president of the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, editing and contributing papers to its journal over many years. With others he successfully opposed the building of a Hereford bypass across the Lugg Meadows, home to several extremely rare plants and the most important surviving Lammas meadows in the country (an ancient system for managing land).

As a keen fisherman, John loved nothing better than to study the interplay between trout and mayfly but, while doing so, his observant eye also noted the progressive diminution in other forms of wildlife in and around the rivers Lugg and Arrow. This led him, at the age of 83, to found the Lugg and Arrow Fisheries Association, which raised £30,000 locally, thereby enabling access to conservation funds of £300,000 from the European Union. Increasingly isolated from committee work by deafness, John remained active and influential behind the scenes, living long enough to see the decline in wildlife stabilised and in some instances reversed. In life John enriched and enhanced the lives of so many of those who met him, but his enduring legacy will be his conservation work, which will benefit and give pleasure to many who will never know of his existence.

Above all, John was a family man. He was survived by Jean (née Roseveare), his wife who supported him every step of the way through 67 years of happy marriage and who was a tower of strength in his increasingly frail final years. Their son, Richard, is an endocrinologist and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Of their three daughters, Elizabeth is a nurse, Diana a physiotherapist and Sarah a mathematician; two married doctors who John had helped to train.

Henry Connor

[The Times 19 September 2016 www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-ross-6mvxpqjxf – accessed 16 November 2016; BMJ 2016 354 4873 http://www.bmj.com/content/354/bmj.i4873 – accessed 16 November 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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