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Biographical entry Nohl-Oser, Herman Christian (1916 - 2008)

FRCS 1951; BM BCh Oxford 1944; DM 1960.

April 1916
Jena, Germany
13 June 2008
General surgeon


Herman Christian Nohl-Oser was a consultant surgeon at Harefield Hospital, where he specialised in pulmonary and oesophageal surgery, with a special interest in paediatric surgery. He was born Herman Christian Nohl (in the 1960s he add the ‘Oser’) in Jena, Germany, in April 1916, the son of Herman Nohl. His father originally intended to study medicine, but, finding anatomy not to his liking, switched to philosophy and in 1920 was appointed to a chair in Göttingen. In 1937 he was dismissed by the Nazis and sent to work in a factory. After the war, he was reinstated as professor and dean of the philosophy faculty.

Despite his first name, Chris was considered one quarter Jewish, and in 1934 he went to England with Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun School, who had a very great influence on his life and subsequently became a lifelong mentor and personal friend. Chris was a ‘late developer’, but despite this became head boy at Gordonstoun, where he had a classical education. In 1936 he entered St Peter’s Hall (now College) in Oxford to matriculate and then study medicine. He was interned on the Isle of Man for one year, won a prize for the best medical and surgical dissertation, and qualified at Oxford as a doctor in 1944.

Because of his German background, he found it difficult to obtain junior hospital posts but nevertheless gained considerable general surgical experience and obtained his FRCS in 1951. Despite this higher qualification, his application for a senior registrar post at the Middlesex Hospital was rejected in favour of a much junior English doctor and, with the encouragement of Sir Thomas Holmes Sellors, whom he had first met in Oxford during the war, he decided to train in thoracic surgery. Junior posts at the London Chest and Brompton hospitals allowed him to study the lymphatic drainage of the lung and the value of scalene node biopsy in the assessment of bronchial carcinoma. He continued this research following his consultant appointment to Harefield Hospital in 1960 and this led to an Oxford DM the same year and to a Hunterian professorship in 1971. When he was appointed to Harefield Hospital open-heart surgery was just beginning and this he undertook with enthusiasm until the appointment of a specialist cardiac surgeon to the hospital in 1967. Thereafter he confined his work to pulmonary and oesophageal surgery, with a special interest in paediatric surgery.

He published his research extensively, both in English and European journals, and lectured widely in England and also in Germany. His magnum opus was a textbook on surgery of the lung, published in Germany, printed in English and later translated into German and Spanish, but unfortunately the book was little known in the UK.

His obvious erudition and ability were not always recognised by his colleagues. He was a founder member of Pete’s Club, a travelling surgical club which pioneered the informal discussion of mistakes and errors of judgement – the only rule of the club was that no member was allowed to report a case which reflected credit on himself.

He was devoted to his surgical career and to his wife Inge, whom he married in the same week that he qualified and who later suffered increasing disability from multiple sclerosis which presented soon after the birth of their child. His only son died tragically after an accident in 1987 and his wife died in 1991. In 1975 Chris had two coronary vein graft operations which were only partially successful in relieving his angina; thereafter a regime of graduated exercise completely relieved his symptoms. He died from a myocardial infarction on 13 June 2008.

Raymond Hurt

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2009 338 480].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England