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Biographical entry Collis, John Leigh (1911 - 2003)

MRCS 1935; FRCS 1937; BSc Birmingham 1932; MB ChB 1935; MD 1943; LRCP 1935.

14 July 1911
Birmingham, UK
4 February 2003
Birmingham, UK
Thoracic surgeon


Jack Collis was a pioneering thoracic surgeon. He was born in Harborne, Birmingham, on 14 July 1911, the son of Walter Thomas Collis, an industrial chemist, and Dora Charton Reay. His choice of medicine was greatly influenced by his local GP and his two medical uncles, one of whom was a professor of medicine at Cardiff. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and studied medicine at Birmingham. There he was a member of the athletic club and captained the hockey team. He was equally outstanding as a scholar, winning the Queen’s scholarship for three years running, and the Ingleby scholarship and Priestley Smith prize in his final year, together with gold medals in clinical surgery and medicine. He graduated in 1935 with first class honours.

He was house physician to K D Wilkinson at Birmingham General Hospital and then house surgeon to B J Ward at the Queen’s Hospital. He went on to be surgical registrar to H H Sampson at the General Hospital, before becoming a resident surgical officer at the Brompton Chest Hospital in London under Tudor Edwards and Clement Price Thomas.

The outbreak of war saw him back in Birmingham as resident surgical officer at the General Hospital. By July 1940 he was surgeon to the Barnsley Hall Emergency hospital, which received Blitz casualties from Birmingham and Coventry. He was in charge of the chest unit for the next four years, during which time he wrote a thesis on the metastatic cerebral abscess associated with suppurative conditions of the lung, where he showed the route of infection via the vertebral veins. This won him an MD with honours, as well as a Hunterian professorship in 1944.

In February 1944 he joined the RAMC to command the No 3 Surgical Team for Chest Surgery, taking his team through Europe into Germany shortly after D-day, for which he was mentioned in despatches. From Germany he was posted to India to receive the anticipated casualties in the Far East. He ended his war service as a Lieutenant Colonel.

At the end of the war he applied to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, from his posting in India, with a glowing reference from Tudor Edwards. He was appointed initially as a general surgeon, though he was soon engaged mainly in thoracic surgery, especially thoracoplasty for tuberculosis, and spent much time travelling between sanatoria in Warwick, Burton-on-Trent and Malvern.

With the advent of cardiac surgery, Jack was responsible for a successful series of mitral valvotomies and was one of the first to remove a tumour from within the cavity of the left atrium, using a sharpened dessert spoon and a piece of wire gauze. Later he withdrew from open heart surgery to concentrate on the surgery of the oesophagus. He became celebrated for three advances in the surgery of the oesophagus – the Collis gastroplasty for patients with reflux, the Collis repair of the lower oesophagus and, above all, a successful technique for oesophagectomy. In this his mortality and leakage rates were half those of his contemporaries. He attributed his success to the use of fine steel wire: his assistants attributed it to his outstanding surgical technique.

He was Chairman of the regional advisory panel for cardiothoracic surgery, an honorary professor of thoracic surgery at the University of Birmingham, and was President of the Thoracic Society and the Society of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgeons. He was Chairman of the medical advisory committee at the Birmingham United Hospitals from 1961 to 1963, and Chairman of the planning committee from 1963 to 1965.

He trained a generation of thoracic surgeons whose friendship he retained, along with those medical orderlies who served with him during the war. Vehemently proud of Birmingham, he devoted much of his retirement to promoting the city.

He married Mavis Haynes in 1941. They had a holiday bungalow in Wales, where he enjoyed walking, gardening and fishing. They had four children, Nigel, Gilly, Christopher and Mark, two of whom entered medicine. He died in Moseley, Birmingham on 4 February 2003.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2003 326 767, with portrait; information from Christopher Collis.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England