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Biographical entry Wooler, Geoffrey Hubert (1911 - 2010)

MRCS 1937; FRCS 1941; MB BCh Cambridge 1938; MD 1947; Hon MD Szeged 1983; LRCP 1937.

1 January 2010
Cardiothoracic surgeon


Geoffrey Wooler was a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary and a pioneer of open heart surgery. He was born in 1911, the son of a successful Leeds businessman. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and Giggleswick School, before going up to Cambridge to read law. After two terms, he switched to medicine and went on to the London Hospital for his clinical studies.

After qualifying in 1937, he was house surgeon to Tudor Edwards, who stimulated his interest in thoracic surgery and arranged for him to visit the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where the bold and pioneering surgery of Ernst Ferdinand Sauerbruch attracted visiting assistants from all over the world, even though Sauerbruch, who was both a Nazi and a bully, treated them abominably.

Wooler had already joined the Territorial Army and, after passing the FRCS, became a graded surgeon and served in the 70th General Hospital RAMC in North Africa from the Algerian landings to Italy, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was mentioned in despatches after the battle of Casino.

After the war, he returned to the London Hospital to become first assistant to Tudor Edwards and Vernon Thompson, meanwhile completing an MD thesis on his surgical experiences in the Middle East.

Almost immediately Philip Allison invited him to join him as a consultant thoracic surgery at the General Infirmary in Leeds. When Allison moved to Oxford, Wooler was joined by John Aylwin. In 1957 he set up an open heart unit with one of the first heart lung machines, designed by Denis Melrose at the Hammersmith Hospital. For a time Leeds and the Hammersmith were the only two units doing open heart surgery in the United Kingdom. Later he was joined by Marian Ion Ionescu, a refugee from Romania, and together they developed the use of pig valves to replace damaged mitral valves, a technique which did not require post-operative anticoagulants. This new method established Wooler’s reputation in Leeds.

His reputation was further enhanced when Lord Woolton collapsed at the Conservative Party conference in Scarborough. He was thought to have pulmonary oedema from heart failure, even though the sputum was pure pus. Wooler was called in. The X-ray showed an elevated left diaphragm. Wooler diagnosed a subphrenic abscess which had ruptured into the lung. He drained the abscess and Woolton recovered.

Wooler and Aylwin both owned Rolls-Royces, the former being chauffeur-driven. Such was the thoracic social scene in the 1950s.

Geoffrey retired in 1974, to run a restaurant. This turned out to be a disaster and after a year he sold it to the chef, though he continued to live next door. He was a born bon viveur and raconteur, and recorded his adventures in a delightful and amusing memoir entitled Pig in a suitcase (Otley, Smith Settle, 1999), which modestly left out any reference to his considerable achievements in surgery, not least of which were his development of biological tissue heart valves and his experience of 50 cases of drainage of subphrenic abscesses. He died on New Year’s Day 2010, in his 99th year.

Raymond Hurt

Sources used to compile this entry: [Geoffrey Wooler, Pig in a Suitcase (Otley, Smith Settle, 1999)].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England