Lives of the fellows

Michael Gerald FitzGerald

b.25 August 1924 d.6 September 2017
MB ChB Birm(1947) MRCP(1952) MD(1956) BSc Oxon(1959) FRCP(1968)

Michael FitzGerald, better known as ‘Fitz’, was liked and respected by all who worked with him at Birmingham General Hospital, where he was the consultant physician specialising in diabetes and thyroid disease between 1964 and his retirement in 1989. A fine physician and man of great integrity, he also had the robust good humour and enthusiasm that became integral to generating the great bond and excellent atmosphere that the staff enjoyed in those days.

Born in Birmingham, the only child of Major Lancelot Cecil FitzGerald and Winifred FitzGerald née Wainwright, Michael was educated during the war years. He was probably a slow starter, but achieved a scholarship to King Edward’s School, Birmingham. His days at this school were happy and he had many interests. He was an active sportsman, playing cricket, hockey and rugby to a good level.

School certificates were taken at the time of the Birmingham Blitz. He didn’t shine until he was overlooked as a school prefect and decided to ‘knuckle down’ and study, so he achieved good results in his highers and an entrance scholarship to Birmingham University Medical School.

Fitz flourished at medical school and, as well as studying hard, he was fully involved with the great social life of those happy years. He led his year academically, in 1947 achieving the Sampson Gamgee surgery prize, the midwifery and gynaecology prize, the Ingleby scholarship, the Queen’s scholarship and a distinction in surgery. Any spare time he had was spent playing rugby and cricket, and he joined the university mountaineering club, climbing in north Wales. Holidays were spent climbing in Skye, the Alps and the Pyrenees.

It was at this time he met his wife to be, Iona Yates, a Staffordshire girl from a coal mining family, who was nursing at the General Hospital. The courtship of ‘Steve’ (as Iona was nicknamed) was short. The wedding in January 1949 was austere and their honeymoon consisted of a few days in a climbing hut. It was a low-key start, but it was a very solid marriage that lasted for 67 years.

The same year he left for his National Service in Aden, as an RAF medical officer. On returning, he continued his blossoming medical career at both the General and Queen Elizabeth hospitals, Birmingham with house jobs, a resident medical officer role and then a resident registrar job. This was followed by a research fellowship at Cardiff Royal Infirmary between 1954 and 1956, and then, between 1956 and 1958, he was a Medical Research Council clinical research fellow in the department of biochemistry at Queen’s College, Oxford under Sir Hans Krebs [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.325]. He returned to the General Hospital as a senior registrar under John Malins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.352], before accepting the post of consultant physician in 1964. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1968.

During these busy years, he also became father to four children – Penelope, Caroline, Joanna and Robert, and they established their family home in Edgbaston. The family holidays he organised, from camping in south west Ireland, to the cottage he owned in the Welsh borders, catered for his lifelong love of hill country and involved many a long walk.

Fitz was first and foremost an astute general physician. He assisted in the training of numerous medical staff who went on to become consultants in the UK and abroad. The diabetic clinic at the General Hospital claimed to be the biggest in the country at the time. Under John Malins and FitzGerald this clinic turned into a huge performance, taking place three days a week with four desks in operation in a large room. There was very little privacy, with the consultation done almost in public. Some patients were happy with this, but others, including the staff, struggled with it, but this was the way it had been built up.

The other special feature of diabetes at the General Hospital was the small dedicated ward (ward one) for in-patients. This specialist area also held all the diabetic patient notes, the secretarial support and a library. The facility was thus very useful in terms of patient education, being in the days before structured education and such courses as DAFNE (dose adjustment for normal eating). The development of the first diabetes nurse specialist education and qualification by Janet Kinson and Malcolm Nattrass was made possible. There was also a ‘coma’ room on the ward, allowing management protocols to be developed and audited.

The other clinical service area he developed was the hospital’s thyroid clinic, which he ran jointly with Geoffrey Oates’ surgical team. Later staff from the Queen Elizabeth department of medicine, headed by Raymond Hoffenberg, were also welcomed into this clinic. This provided Hoffenberg with an important specialty base. They pioneered fine needle aspiration cytology of the thyroid here.

Between 1954 and 1989 at least 48 research papers were published by FitzGerald, the early ones being with Paul Fourman [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.181] on electrolytes. Eleven of his papers were related to ketoacidosis. He also took a particular interest in the diagnosis of diabetes in the elderly, in actuarial studies and in the assessment of new therapies for diabetes. He contributed to our understanding of the pathology of renal disease in diabetes with studies with Douglas Brewer. The observation of the association of foot lesions with retinopathy in patients with newly diagnosed diabetes is a classic. He was offered a professorship in medicine, but after much thought turned this role down, so he could remain a clinician. He was also the honorary secretary of the medical and scientific section of the British Diabetic Association.

At the age of 65 he took retirement and he and Iona moved to a smallholding in the Peak District, where he could indulge his lifelong interest in gardening and she hers, of breeding Dales ponies. They had a very long and happy retirement together, becoming grandparents to six grandchildren. Fitz had always been a man of many and varied enthusiasms, but the two interests he held all his life were the appreciation of fine wine and his well-tended garden. He sadly lost Steve in 2016, but he never let this conquer him and, as he had done all his life, he kept himself positive and interested, and he kept on learning.

Alex Wright
Robert FitzGerald

[BMJ 2017 359 5484 – accessed 28 November 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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