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Biographical entry Ross, Sir James Paterson (1895 - 1980)

Baronet 1960; KCVO 1949; MRCS 1917; FRCS 1922; MB, BS London 1920; MS 1928; Hon FACS 1953; Hon FRACS 1957; Hon FRCS Ed 1959; Hon FRFPS Glasgow 1959; Hon FFR 1959; Hon FDSRCS 1964; LRCP 1917.

  • Image of Ross, Sir James Paterson
26 May 1895
London, UK
5 July 1980
Oxford, UK
General surgeon


James Paterson Ross, the eldest of four sons of James Ross, an official in the Bank of England, and of May (née Paterson), was born in London on 26 May 1895. After early education at Christ's College, Finchley, he entered St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in 1912, with an entrance scholarship in science. He was an outstanding student and was awarded the Treasurer's Prize and a junior scholarship in anatomy and physiology. His studies were interrupted during the first world war when he served as a sergeant dispenser to the 1st London General Hospital but was released and returned to Bart's in 1915. He qualified with the Conjoint Diploma in 1917 and, after three months as a house surgeon to Cozens Bailey and Girling Ball, he entered the Royal Navy as a Surgeon-Lieutenant and was demobilised in 1919.

After the war, Paterson Ross, as he was generally known, graduated in 1920 with distinction in surgery and forensic medicine and was awarded the Gold Medal. At Bart's he served as a demonstrator of physiology in 1920 and pathology, 1921-22. He passed the FRCS in 1922 and the MS in 1928. Shortly after he went to Boston for neurosurgical training under Dr Harvey Cushing by whom he was received almost as a member of the family. Returning to London in 1923 he joined Professor George Gask's newly established surgical professorial unit at Bart's. Together with Gask there developed a special interest in surgery of the sympathetic nervous system and Ross was awarded the Jacksonian Prize in 1931 for his essay on this subject. In the same year he gave a Hunterian Lecture on the treatment of cerebral tumours with radium. In 1933 he gave a second Hunterian Lecture on Sympathectomy as an experiment in human physiology, and was Hunterian Professor for the third time in 1939 when he lectured on The effects of radium upon carcinoma of the breast.

During the period between the two world wars he was greatly influenced by Sir Thomas Dunhill who served first as assistant director and then associate surgeon to the professorial unit. Ross also influenced by Geoffrey Keynes's work on breast carcinoma and succeeded Keynes as private assistant to Lord Moynihan for the latter's London practice.

On George Gask's retirement in 1935 Ross succeeded to the Professorial Chair at the age of 40. He had never been entirely happy in private practice and was admirably suited to this academic appointment, being an excellent teacher of undergraduates. He was a most competent clinician and a sound operator in his special fields though never entirely at ease with difficult technical work.

On the outbreak of the second world war he moved with his unit to the Bart's sector hospital at Hill End, St Albans, and moved house there. He sometimes remarked with envy, though without rancour, on the excellent and undisturbed conditions under which his colleague Learmonth worked in his Edinburgh professorial unit during the war. However, at St Albans, he did conduct investigations into the bacteriology of war wounds and war injury of blood vessels. Before and at the beginning of the war Ross was responsible for organising the neurosurgical casualty service in London and East Anglia, though neurosurgery at Hill End was done by John O'Connell.

After the war his unit was re-established at Bart's, but by then his time was increasingly occupied by committee work with little opportunity for research and publication. He was appointed civilian consultant surgeon to the Royal Navy and consulting surgeon to King Edward VII Convalescent Home for Officers, at Osborne, and the Papworth Village Settlement. He had been elected to the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1943, became Vice-President, 1952-54, Bradshaw Lecturer in 1953 and President, 1957-60. From 1954 to 1957 he was Dean of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences at the College and Arthur Sims Travelling Professor in 1957.

In 1949, when King George VI had developed signs of serious ischaemic symptoms in one leg, at the suggestion of the then Sergeant Surgeon, Sir Thomas Dunhill, Paterson Ross and James Learmonth were called into consultation and then undertook a lumbar ganglionectomy operation. Both surgeons were created KCVO. Sir James Paterson Ross subsequently attended Sir Winston Churchill, assisting Dunhill with the repair of a large inguinal hernia. Dr Langton Hewer was the anaesthetist on that occasion and has related with piquant relish that Ross was treated by Dunhill as though he was still a house surgeon! Ross was appointed Surgeon to H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. Subsequent to this he received many honorary fellowships and degrees in the U.K., the Commonwealth and the U.S.A.

On terminating his Presidency and vacating his Chair at Bart's he was created a Baronet. In the same year he succeeded Sir Francis Fraser as Director of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation, where he stayed until 1966. He remained actively interested in the College Court of Patrons and served as a Hunterian Trustee for the rest of his life. His obituarist in The Times was Sir Geoffrey Keynes who stated that Ross would be remembered as an outstanding technician and that it was his mental capacity, sound judgement and sympathetic understanding of patients which marked him out. He was not a prolific writer, but shared with Sir Ernest Rock Carling the editing of British surgical practice, a work in several volumes.

Jim, as he was known to his friends, gained the affection of many of his colleagues, students and patients; but there were some people with whom he did not establish a warm relationship and easy rapport, and whom he judged badly. This was possibly due to an innate shyness and reserve, for he was a man of high ideals, humanity and selflessness. He married a Bart's ward sister, Margaret Townsend, in 1924. She was a great supporter of him throughout his career though she predeceased him in 1978. They had three sons, the first of whom died in infancy. The elder surviving son, Keith, is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Southampton, and the younger is a general surgeon at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading. Sir James died in Oxford on 5 July 1980, during a convivial gathering of fellow professors, and is survived by his sons, the elder of whom inherited the Baronetcy.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit. med. J. 1980, 281, 233 and 569; Lancet 1980, 2, 158; The Times 8 July 1980.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England