Harvey Marcovitch: a flea-market hunter-gatherer

Harvey MarcovitchBMJ bloggers are in the habit of going to exotic places to listen to exciting lectures. In my time I’ve done my share of all that but a few weeks ago my medical education leapt ahead in an unlikely place – the Malvern Giant Flea Market.  In a subsidiary role as my antique dealer wife’s second opinion and general purposes porter, I rarely get to buy anything but, on this occasion, my eye was caught by a pair of medals on which serpents and staffs figured. A closer look disclosed one to be a medal commemorating the 1961 Hunterian Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Frank Groves Ellis (1925-2003). The other was awarded to Ellis when he was Lettsomian lecturer of the Medical Society of London in 1975.

I more or less knew who Hunter was and why the RCS should eponymise him. Lettsom was beyond me but should not have been: he was a Quaker physician and philanthropist. In 1774, he founded the society of which Ellis became President three years after he received the medal I had seen languishingly forlornly on a dealer’s stand. I think I recall Frank Ellis as the surgeon who took me through my surgical viva for my Final MB in 1966 but I might have confused him with an equally terrifying Guy’s surgeon of the time.  Whether or not I owed him my medical career, it seemed cruel to leave his medals behind so I bought them and handed them over to the RCS Hunterian Museum curator, in the hope they might be displayed.

I was saddened at the idea that, a few years after one’s death, medals representing important milestones in a life might be consigned to a house clearer or – worse still –stolen. My own medals are nowhere near the same calibre but I would like to think that one of my offspring or grand-offspring would at least use the 1966 Max Bonn medal from St Mary’s Hospital as a paperweight. I can’t now remember why I was given it, only that my friends insisted on calling me Max for a tiresome few weeks after it was announced.  Scrubbing up better is my glittering CC de Silva medal from the Sri Lanka Paediatric Association.  I remember giving my lecture in Colombo at a temperature and humidity both in the nineties, while dressed in full academic paraphernalia. As I was processing to the lectern with a phalanx of equally overdressed Sri Lankan dignitaries, an English pathologist in the audience, who subsequently went on to great things,  whispered in my ear that I had my mortar board on back to front. I didn’t even know mortar boards had a back and a front which just shows the difference between real academics and parvenus such as me.

Anyway, back to the late Mr Ellis.  His obituary in Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows Online revealed that he was appointed transplant and vascular surgeon at Guy’s in 1969.  His obituarist described his harvesting a kidney from a patient on the South Coast by taking his entire team there in his car. It reminded me that, thirty years later, consultants weren’t so hospitable or maybe their cars were smaller: when a team came from the paediatric ITU at St. Mary’s to retrieve a patient with meningococcal sepsis from my unit in Banbury, the research registrars arrived an hour after the ambulance, having taken the train from Marylebone.  Ellis was also stated to have financed the appointment of an anaesthetist to help lessen his waiting list. Any offers out there?  He was described as upsetting committees and was regarded as professionally tactless rather than intentionally rude. Well, he was a surgeon after all.

I tracked down his former secretary. She remembered a burglary from his Harley Street rooms but did not recall his medals being amongst the loot. Another possibility was that as his country place was in Worcestershire, not far from the flea market where they landed up, might they have been sold when it came under the hammer?  As a postscript I also came across Anshul Raja, who was looking for sponsorship of his climb of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Guy’s renal unit. His grandfather, Jagu Tamma was, he believes,  the first Indian to undergo a renal transplant. It was carried out by Ellis in 1972 and when Mr Tamma died in 2002 he was one of the world’s longest survivors of the procedure.

So in the space of a week I have learned about Lettsom, the early days of renal transplantation in the UK, and the value of contacting secretaries if you want to find out something about an ex-consultant.  Can I have some points towards revalidation please?