Lives of the fellows

Leslie Henry Capel

b.27 December 1917 d.18 December 1988
MB BS Lond(1950) MRCP(1953) MD(1961) FRCP(1970)

Leslie Capel was born in Cardiff, South Wales, the son of a local business man, Percy Capel, and his wife Fanny Ballinson. He was educated at Cardiff High School. On the outbreak of war he volunteered for Army service, but was rejected because he was severely shortsighted. He became a cowman on a dairy farm and liked to recount how he began to read widely on bovine diseases and came to be regarded as a local expert. One day he was asked to examine a bull which he judged to be particularly friendly; he was promptly tossed over its head with resulting serious lee injuries, and that was the end of his farming career. Undaunted, he decided to take up veterinary studies at Reading University, where he proved to be an outstanding student. Because of his special aptitude for physiology it was suggested that he should make a further change of career and study medicine. In 1945 he joined St Mary’s Hospital, where he won several prizes in physiology, pharmacology and histology, and from where he graduated in 1950.

During his junior house jobs at St Stephens, the Whittington and the London Chest Hospital, he developed an interest in thoracic medicine, particularly in the then growing study of the physiology of lung function. Some of his early ideas, influenced by his training at the Trudeau Sanatorium in America, where he was a Fulbright Scholar in 1953-54, helped to form a solid basis for the understanding of the mechanisms of airflow limitation.

He became registrar at the London Chest Hospital in 1954, and senior registrar in 1956, and he was then given the task of setting up the respiratory function department and of training staff to run it. He did it with great efficiency. He became highly skilled in analysing the problems causing respiratory incapacity, and his colleagues came to rely on him a great deal for his assessment of their patients’ fitness for cardiothoracic surgery in borderline cases. He also became part-time senior registrar at Highwood Hospital for Children, which was then situated at Brentford, Essex. His sympathetic manner made him a great favourite with the children who named him ‘the Professor’ because of his likeness to a character in a then popular television series called ‘Thunderbirds’.

At Highwood he developed his interest in respiratory allergy, and this led to his appointment as consultant in that department at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, in February 1963.

In 1962 he was appointed consultant physician to the London Chest Hospital, and it was there that he devoted so much of his life.

Leslie Capel was a man of vision. His early ideas on lung sounds, on lung function, on specialist nurses, on rehabilitation for those suffering from cardiothoracic disease, and on the need for recognition and help for those who were handicapped by the invisible disability of severe respiratory disease, were all years ahead of his time. His pioneering efforts helped to bring many of his ideas to fruition, but with his customary modesty he would never take any credit for them.

He was a gentle, compassionate physician who, by his example, demonstrated the importance of treating the patient rather than the disease. His warmth and humanity endeared him to his patients and to his colleagues. His mind was an original and enquiring one, and he inculcated in his students a healthy scepticism for time honoured practices and for fashionable innovations which were not supported by good evidence of their value.

He was also a gifted teacher and clinician; his weekly discussion meeting in his respiratory function department was one of the most popular features at the London Chest Hospital, and junior and senior doctors came from far and wide to listen. Even when he was close to retiring age he still possessed that youthful energy and infectious enthusiasm which, for so many years, inspired his staff and students.

Leslie Capel’s manner was courteous and deliberate, and his speech and writing were models of precision. He loved words, and he wrote with great ease and skill; this was apparent when he was joint editor of the British Journal of Diseases of the Chest, and associate editor of the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin, and also in his many medical contributions to both journals and textbooks, on lung function, smoking and chronic bronchitis. His favourite crusade was the correct use of the English language. He preferred the short sentence, and the shorter word, and he instilled clarity of thought and word in colleagues and students.

Capel became an effective broadcaster on both television and radio and it is said that, following one of his anti-smoking programmes, shops in some parts of the country ran out of chewing gum. His interests were wide; he collected old medical instruments, and he built his own telescope and became much absorbed in the study of astronomy.

Just a few weeks before his sudden death in December, he attended a reception at the London Chest Hospital for the formal acceptance of the ‘Capel Collection’ of historical medical instruments, in the newly opened museum, and it was touching to see the real affection and respect shown to him by former colleagues and staff. They regarded him as a lifelong friend and counsellor, as indeed he was.

Leslie Capel came late to that reception - but it was expected. He was nearly always late for meetings, so much so that it could be confidently relied on. His other vice was to mislay important papers, generally his own but sometimes those belonging to colleagues whom he had just visited and whose papers he would gather up with his own. Whenever important papers were missing at the hospital, the cry would go up ‘Has Leslie been in here recently?’.

Leslie was a sensitive, cultured and tolerant man, and always ready to help, but he could be firm and incisive when he saw injustice and wrongdoing. Over the past 20 years his contribution to thoracic medicine and to the London Chest Hospital had been considerable; his death produced in many a real sense of personal loss.

In 1953 he married Eileen Grace Hots, daughter of a veterinary surgeon, and they had one son, Jonathan. They both survived him.

M Caplin

[Brit.med.J., 1989,298,249-50 1520]

(Volume VIII, page 73)

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