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Biographical entry Gray, Thomas Cecil (1913 - 2008)

CBE 1976; OstJ 1979; KCSG 1982; FRCS 1968; MB ChB Liverpool 1937; DA 1941; MD 1947; FRCA 1948; Hon FFARCSI 1962; Hon FRCP 1972; Hon FANZCA 1992.

11 March 1913
Liverpool, UK
5 January 2008


Thomas Cecil Gray was the first professor of anaesthesia at Liverpool University and undoubtedly one of the great British pioneers of modern anaesthesia. He was born in Liverpool on 11 March 1913, the son of Thomas Gray, a local publican, and Ethelreda Unwin. A devout Roman Catholic, Cecil was educated at the Convent of the Sacre Coeur in Bath and then Ampleforth. It had been his intention to enter the Monastery, but being caught smoking in the bushes within two months of becoming a novice monk made it clear to all except Cecil that this was not his vocation. To the dismay of his mother, he returned to Liverpool to study medicine. Graduating with distinction in anatomy in 1937, he became a trainee in general practice in the city, before purchasing a practice in Wallasey with the help of his father.

He rapidly became fascinated by anaesthesia, which at that time was mostly practiced on a part-time basis by general practitioners. Under the tutelage of Robert Minnitt, he rapidly collected the 1,000 cases required for the diploma in anaesthesia, which he obtained in 1941, and shortly afterwards became a full-time anaesthetist to several hospitals in the city of Liverpool.

His academic career began in 1942 with his appointment as demonstrator in anaesthesia in the University of Liverpool. Largely as the result of Minnitt’s mission to ensure proper teaching and training in anaesthesia, Cecil was appointed reader and head when the academic department was established in 1947. In 1959, he was awarded a personal chair in anaesthesia, which he held until his retirement from active practice in 1976. He was the first postgraduate dean of the faculty of medicine in Liverpool University from 1966 to 1970 and then dean of the faculty of medicine until 1976.

Very early in his full-time career in anaesthesia Cecil Gray and John Halton set out to investigate the feasibility of inducing neuromuscular blockade by means of a derivative of wourali, the crude South American arrow poison which was eventually purified as d-tubocurarine chloride by Burroughs Wellcome. Within a year they had collected 1,200 surgical cases in which the drug had been used safely. Their first public dissertation ‘A milestone in anaesthesia – d-tubocurarine’ was delivered to the section of anaesthesia of the Royal Society of Medicine on 1 March 1946. Much often sceptical discussion about the safety of this potential poison took place at subsequent meetings of the section. In April 1948, Cecil Gray attempted to allay this scepticism with his detailed report on 8,500 patients anaesthetised by a group of enthusiastic colleagues across the Liverpool region who had willingly adopted the technique of hypnosis, muscle relaxation and controlled ventilation without serious morbidity or mortality, thereby confirming Cecil’s firm belief that one of the most potentially dangerous of drugs was one of the least toxic when used carefully. With modification this technique has survived nationally and internationally to the present day.

He must also be remembered for his major contribution to education and standards of training in anaesthesia. Aware of the changes which would follow the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, he saw the need for a high standard of formal training and postgraduate education in anaesthesia and an examination structure similar to the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. On becoming reader and head of the new department of anaesthesia in the University of Liverpool in 1947, he persuaded the dean of the Liverpool Medical School and the board of clinical studies to support the establishment of a postgraduate course. The first enrolments took place in October 1948. Within a year the hospital authorities within the area accepted the proposals for a full-time course and empowered the academic department to recruit junior staff for the hospitals throughout the region. Most of the surgeons tacitly agreed to the presence of trainees in the operating theatres. All trainees would attend lectures until 11am each morning, including Saturday, and all were required to have had some anaesthetic experience prior to enrolment. This course was the first in the United Kingdom, and by 1952 had expanded its horizons, drawing students from the Indian sub-continent, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Africa and Australia.

Cecil’s profound interest in medical education and his organisational skills led to his election as a foundation member of the board of the faculty of anaesthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1948. He served as vice-dean from 1952 to 1954 and as dean from 1964 to 1967. He also played an active role in the foundation of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiology and the European Congress of Anaesthesiology. He was invited as either a visiting professor or lecturer to many university departments and anaesthetic societies overseas.

In 1948 Cecil and Edward Faulkner Hill were appointed as joint editors of The British Journal of Anaesthesia and oversaw a gradual improvement in coverage, quality and circulation. He retired from this role in 1964.

Cecil was invited to deliver numerous eponymous lectures. His many honours included the Clover medal, the James Young Simpson gold medal, the Henry Hill Hickman medal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the George James Guthrie medal, the gold medal of the Royal College of Surgeons, the John Snow silver medal and the Magill gold medal of the Association of Anaesthetists. In 1982 he was awarded a gold medal by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the role which he had played in the organisation of the Pope’s visit to Liverpool.

In 1961 he became the first anaesthetist to be awarded the Sims Commonwealth travelling professorship of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Surgeons and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. This provided the opportunity for Cecil and his wife to travel to Australia, where they spent three months engaged in educational activities and valuable interchange of ideas.

He wrote numerous papers and co-edited several editions of General anaesthesia (London, Butterworths), which became the ‘Liverpool Bible’ of anaesthesia. His last publication in 2003 was the biography of Richard Formby, the founder of the Liverpool Medical School at the Royal Institution, which subsequently moved to the Infirmary in 1844.

Cecil was president of the section of anaesthesia of the Royal Society of Medicine, the Association of Anaesthetists, the Liverpool Society of Anaesthetists and the Liverpool Medical Institution. He was active in the British Medical Association and the Medical Defence Union, of which he was vice-president from 1954 to 1961 and again from 1983 to 1988, and served as honorary treasurer from 1976 to 1981. From 1966 to 1983 he was a much respected member of the Liverpool Bench.

Cecil, a man of great charm, talent and boundless energy was a gifted teacher, inspiring students, trainees and colleagues with devotion and enthusiasm. His advice, either deliberately sought or volunteered, was always sound. No problem was insurmountable. Consequently he had a profound influence on the lives of many whose progress he followed assiduously and with considerable pride. A good friend and mentor of many, friendships made endured.

Cecil was married twice. In 1937 he married Marjorie (Margot) Kathleen née Hely, a talented amateur actress and artist, by whom he had two children, David (who is a consultant anaesthetist in Liverpool) and Beverley. Marjorie (Margot) died in 1978. In 1979 he married Pamela Mary (Corning). Their son James Frederick was born in 1981.

Cecil, a true native of Liverpool, was a generous, entertaining host with a wicked sense of humour. He had a passion for amateur dramatics, as both a player and producer of the Irish Players for over 20 years. An accomplished pianist and opera lover, he was a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Liverpool Welsh Choral Society and the Verdi Society. The night before he died he gave a faultless rendition of Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’. He died on 5 January 2008.

Information from Mrs Pamela Gray.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England