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Biographical entry Shields, Sir Robert (1930 - 2008)

Kt 1990; MRCS and FRCS 1966; MB ChB Glasgow 1953; MD 1965; Hon DSc Wales; FRCS Edinburgh 1959; FRCPS 1993; FRCP Edinburgh 1996; FACS.

8 November 1930
Paisley, Renfrewshire, UK
3 October 2008
Liverpool, UK
General surgeon


Sir Robert Shields enjoyed a distinguished career in surgery and in academic and health service administration. He was professor of surgery and chairman of the department of surgery and honorary consultant to the Royal Liverpool University and Broadgreen hospitals from 1969 to 1996. His unit was internationally respected for its research, teaching and clinical practice.

He was born in Paisley on 8 November 1930, the son of Robert Alexander Shields, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Isobel Shields née Reid. Educated at Paisley’s John Neilson School, he studied medicine at Glasgow University. Showing early promise in his clinical training, he passed pathology with distinction and won the Captain H S Rankin VC Memorial, MacLeod and Mary Margaret Isobel Ure prizes in surgery and the Asher-Asher medal in diseases of the ear, nose and throat.

Following house appointments at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, he served his National Service in the RAMC, as regimental medical officer with the First Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Berlin. There he met (Grace) Marianne Swinburn, a nursing sister at the British Military Hospital, whom he married in 1957. Over the years that followed he retained a Territorial Army connection as a major with the Seventh Battalion of the Argyll’s until 1962, later becoming an honorary colonel to the University of Liverpool Officer Training Corps.

Demobilised in 1956, Robert returned to the Western Infirmary as Hall fellow at the University of Glasgow under Sir Charles Illingworth. This was followed by a year in the USA, where he worked as a research fellow to Charles Cooke and Jesse Bollman at the Mayo Clinic. There his research on intestinal absorption formed the basis of his MD (1965), which won the Bellahouston gold medal. For three years, from 1960, he was lecturer in surgery at Glasgow University. In 1963 he followed Sir Patrick Forrest as senior lecturer at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff, becoming reader in 1969, when he accepted the chair at Liverpool University in the same year. Here he encouraged the development of a transplant unit which opened in 1973 and, with his great friend, Richard McConnell established the country’s first dedicated gastro-intestinal unit that combined both medical and surgical expertise.

Robert Shields had great administrative flair. A good listener to all points of view, he was meticulous in preparation of all paper work, in which he displayed military attention to what he called ‘staff work’. He was appointed dean of the Liverpool faculty of medicine in 1982 and in this position paved the way for new chairs in general practice and public health.

He was active within the National Health Service at a national level, advising the Secretary of State for Health. He was chairman of a range of advisory and training committees, as well as working for his own local authorities, the Mersey Regional Health Authority and the Royal Liverpool University Hospital Trust. In addition to all his many commitments, he was in demand as an examiner in surgery to the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Leicester and Sheffield, as well as many others overseas.

Robert Shields held many prestigious offices. He was president of the Surgical Research Society, the Society of Gastroenterology and the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, from which he received the Moynihan medal. After 30 years of ordinary membership, Bob was elected president of the Travelling Surgical Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (from 2002 to 2004) and was later made an honorary member. He was chairman of the British Liver Foundation, a member of the Medical Research Council and the General Medical Council, where he served on the education and professional conduct committees.

In 1990 he became the first Glaswegian in nearly 500 years to be elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In our College, he was a member of the Court of Examiners and Zachary Cope lecturer in 1992.

Shields published nearly 200 original articles and reviews in the field of gastroenterology, particularly liver problems and oesophageal varices and contributed to several textbooks including Textbook of surgery (Philadelphia/London, Lippincott, c.1983) and Gastrointestinal emergencies (London, W B Saunders) in 1992, as well as serving on the editorial boards of Gut, British Journal of Surgery and the international editorial board of Current Practice in Surgery. He was much sought after as a visiting professor in five continents. For the Travelling Surgical Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland he gave many short papers at home and abroad. One notable one was delivered at the diamond jubilee meeting of the society in 1984: ‘Musings of a dean’ was a model of clarity and commonsense. He had what Dean Swift called “the true definition of style”, namely the capacity to use “proper words in proper places”.

Many academic distinctions came his way, among them the award of doctor of science by the University of Wales in 1990 gave him particular pleasure. He received honorary fellowships of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the College of Surgeons of Hong Kong, the American College of Surgeons, the College of Surgeons of South Africa, the American Surgical Association, the Association of Surgeons of India and the Academy of Singapore.

In retirement, he continued to serve as a government adviser on issues relating to the restructuring of the NHS. In 1996 he reported to the Scottish Office on Commissioning better health, in which he recommended that the onus for maintaining a high-quality environment should fall more directly on hospital boards, which should focus on clinical outcomes and monitor clinical practice using data from clinical audit.

Robert Shields was a quiet man and had great integrity: his natural reserve hid a determination to get things done. Throughout a busy life he continued to maintain a close interest in research and supported many doctors in their clinical and laboratory work. He was knighted in 1990 and became Deputy Lieutenant of Merseyside in 1991.

The Shields’ main home was in the Liverpool, where he enjoyed walking his dog on the Wirral. He and Marianne relaxed in their retreat ‘north of the border’ around Lochgilphead in the west of Scotland, where they sailed and walked in the Argyll countryside. They had two girls and a boy: Jennifer Camm has been NHS regional commissioner for the South West since 2001. The younger daughter is a commissioning manager on the Wirral and Andrew is a director of Avis Europe, based in London and Paris.

Sir Robert Shields died at his Liverpool home after a long illness on 3 October 2008 and is survived by Marianne, their three children and their families.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Who’s Who; The Daily Telegraph 9 October 2008; Travelling Surgical Society Reports and Minutes 1973-2008; BMJ 2008 337 2470].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England