Lives of the fellows

Ronald William Fearnley Campbell

b.11 Oct 1946 d.13 June 1998
BSc Edin(1966) MB ChB(1969) MRCP Edin(1973) FRCP Edin(1981) FRCP(1984) FRCP Glasg(1992)

Ronnie Campbell, one of the world’s experts on sudden cardiac death, died from a heart attack at the tragically early age of 51. He was in the prime of life and would have had a great future as a leader in his specialty. As it was, he was president of the British Cardiac Society and had already established an international reputation in his field.

He attended Dollar Academy and, at the age of 16, went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. After junior posts at Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh, he took up his first cardiology post at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Ronnie (only his mother, when annoyed, was allowed to call him Ronald) was fascinated by both electronics and cardiology, and he came into medicine at a time when these two interests could be welded into the science of electrophysiology. He had an inquisitive and creative mind and he was never happier than when he could apply his intellect to solving a problem for an individual patient. This was exemplified early in his career when the livelihood of an actor friend was in peril because a clicking artificial heart valve played havoc with the microphone on his chest. As a result of Ronnie’s ingenious solution, the actor was able to continue his vocation.

Deciding that disorders of heart rhythm were the most promising and exciting area of research, he obtained a Sir Henry Wellcome fellowship to train at Duke University in North Carolina (then the Mecca of electrophysiology). After a very productive year, he joined the newly created cardiology department at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne as a British Heart Foundation research fellow.

He immediately set about questioning one of the shibboleths of the day. It was believed that one could predict and, therefore, prevent ventricular fibrillation - the major cause of death in a heart attack - by detecting and treating lesser ‘warning’ arrhythmias. By meticulously scrutinizing a multitude of continuous electrocardiographic recordings, he was able to show that this tenet was erroneous. This helped to instigate a major change in the management of heart attacks. He was awarded the young investigator’s award of the British Cardiac Society for this research.

He soon became an authority on the new anti-arrhythmic drugs then being developed. As these proved to be rather ineffective and hazardous, he started, with his surgical colleagues, a programme of research into the surgical treatment of heart rhythm disorders. In this the group achieved considerable success, one result of which was that they were honoured as the ‘medical team of the year’ by the local television station. What gave Ronnie particular pleasure was that they shared the platform with the band Dire Straits, a rock group he greatly admired.

In due course he was promoted to lecturer and senior lecturer and, in 1986, he was appointed the British Heart Foundation professor of cardiology in Newcastle. Although his research work was distinguished, it will be for his brilliant teaching and unique sense of fun that he will probably be best remembered. He communicated his zest for life wherever he went, and the audience lit up with anticipation when he entered a lecture room for they knew to expect the unexpected. His lectures always appeared to be fresh, and his clarity and humour made him an internationally admired speaker. He was a master of the telling analogy, and his hilarious anecdotes were legendary. He drew much of his inspiration from his own and his colleagues’ everyday life. His own exploits were never short of the extraordinary as when, as a flying doctor in Northern Canada in a midwinter blizzard, he had to transport a woman in labour with a breech delivery in an aeroplane flown by an inexperienced pilot, the undercarriage being torn off by a tree as they took off. He survived the experience to tell many such tales.

To be at the forefront of medical research today requires contact with the leaders in the field. Ronnie enthusiastically took the advice of a senior colleague that the best way to meet the pundits in his area of expertise was on the ski slopes. During the season, he could often he seen discussing arrhythmic problems with colleagues in the chairlifts and gondolas of the Dolomites, Rockies and Lappland. As a result, he was always conversant with the latest advances.

He was an outstanding and very caring physician who established an exceptional rapport with his patients. He was also immensely popular with students, being elected president of the Students’ Society. A brilliant photographer and video editor, he crowned his term with the production of a satirical exposé of the criteria for medical school entry. Interviews with senior figures were mercilessly cut and pasted with journalistic panache, and the piece ended with the medical school porter gaining entry at the third interview attempt after finally articulating the local buzz-word of the day, ‘integrated curriculum’, in the broadest Geordie accent.

In spite of a hectic international schedule and a busy and productive department, Ronnie had time for a variety of interests, including astronomy, the techniques of Victorian building, photography and music, but in recent years he channelled much of his exceptional energy into restoring a former Quaker meeting house (christened by him ‘Dun Quakin’) in Cumbria into a house furnished with a remarkable array of electronic devices of his own invention.

Although always the life and soul of any party, he had a very private side. His home life with his wife Agnes and their daughter was very important to him, and he kept in close touch with them wherever he was in the world.

Desmond Julian

[References:The Times 10 July 1998;The Guardian 30 June 1998;The Independent 20 July 1998;Cardiology News 1998:1:5]

(Volume XI, page 98)

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