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Biographical entry Slesser, Elizabeth Vivien (1918 - 2010)

MRCS and FRCS 1974; MB BCh Edin 1941; FRCS Edin 1945.

23 August 1918
13 February 2010
Cardiothoracic surgeon


Elizabeth Vivien Slesser, known as 'Betty', worked as a surgeon in Leicester from 1951 to 1978 and expanded the cardio-thoracic unit at Groby Road Hospital. She had an interesting life at a time when women in surgery had to fight hard to be recognised, and later lectured on this topic at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

She was born in India on 23 August 1918, the elder daughter of William Slesser, a military policeman, and Alice née Hardy, who was a graduate of Aberdeen University. Betty's sister, Margaret Phillip, died in her early twenties but had a son who lives in Thunder Bay, Canada. Her brother, Malcolm, a professor of energy studies at Strathclyde University, had two children, Morag and Calum. Morag Slesser, Betty's niece, is a clinical psychologist.

Qualifying from Edinburgh University in 1941, Betty obtained a house surgeon post in the ear, nose and throat department at the Royal Infirmary and worked with Ewart Martin. In those days it was most unusual for female doctors to get junior house jobs in general surgery and medicine in Edinburgh, and most had to apply to the specialist departments, such as eyes, skin and VD. One exception among her contemporaries was Dame Sheila Sherlock, who won the Ettes scholarship, got general house appointments, and later became the first woman professor of medicine in England at the Royal Free Hospital, London.

In March 1942, Betty applied for a post as house surgeon to the Prince of Wales Hospital, Greenbank, Plymouth. The town had been heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe and she wished to contribute to the war effort. The interviews took place during heavy snowfall that prevented her from travelling. She sent a telegram to this effect, but received one in return indicating that she had been appointed. She gained valuable experience at this busy general hospital in emergency work, including many casualties from 'hit and run raids'.

The following year Betty was made resident surgical officer to the Prince of Wales Hospital in Devonport, a smaller hospital with fewer junior staff, but gained good clinical experience. The medical registrar gave anaesthetics for emergencies, and on one occasion held up a copy of Romanis and Mitchiner, which gave Betty the confidence she needed to operate on an empyema of the gallbladder, found instead of the acutely inflamed appendix she had initially diagnosed.

Of her early experiences she wrote at a later date: "We worked extremely long hours, including Saturdays and Sundays, without feeling tired or badly done by. To us it was all valuable experience. My salary was £100 per year plus board and room. Initially I had one half day off a week, 3pm to 10pm, covered by the junior consultant, but when I got back I found all the emergencies from the late afternoon onwards had piled up and were awaiting me: I soon gave up my half day!"

In 1943, feeling she should do more for the war effort, she was interviewed and accepted for the Royal Air Force medical service. This decision was reversed by the central committee who controlled all civilian hospital appointments. Betty was told that the RAF did not need more women doctors and she should find another surgical post. Unsuccessful in many applications to hospitals along the south coast, in desperation she applied for a job at a miners convalescent home near Sheffield. The interviews were held at the Royal Infirmary and Betty was pleasantly surprised to be offered a post as first assistant there to the surgical professorial unit with Sir Ernest Finch, doyen of surgery in the city at the time. Like many cities less vulnerable to German bombing, Sheffield received its fair share of second front service casualties who had received emergency treatment in field hospitals and hospitals on the south coast of England. The junior consultant, Alan Fawcett, a good general surgeon with superb technical ability, was developing an interest in thoracic surgery and passed his enthusiasm on to Betty Slesser as she helped him with his early thoracic operations, many performed under local anaesthesia.

Clearly destined for a career in surgery, she sat and passed the Edinburgh FRCS in January 1945. Rather than attempt to obtain a post in a teaching hospital with many men returning from war service, she returned to the West Country as a surgical registrar.

By September 1946 Alan Fawcett was specialising entirely in thoracic surgery and offered Betty a senior registrar post in Sheffield at the Royal Infirmary. She also worked with J T Chesterman at the Northern General Hospital. He was a pioneer in open heart surgery and the development of the heart lung machine. The workload in Sheffield was enormous, but Betty developed her interest in surgery of the oesophagus.

In August 1951 she was appointed consultant surgeon to the thoracic unit in Leicester, based at the old tuberculosis and isolation hospital, a unit was started before the Second World War by Sir Thomas Holmes Sellors and expanded by her senior colleague, Gordon Cruickshank. On achieving regional status, the name was changed to Groby Road Hospital. Betty knew she was not the favoured candidate and had to overcome this obstacle with the Leicester consultant staff. She recalled one amusing episode whilst waiting for the interview. Females were expected to wear hats for these formal occasions. Her chief, Mr Fawcett, who was on the interviewing committee, made a remark likely to depress any lady before experiencing the ordeal: "Where did you get that bloody awful hat?"

In addition to her work in Leicestershire, Betty had to look after south Derbyshire. Initially 50 per cent of the work was in the surgery of pulmonary tuberculosis, bronchiectasis and lung cancer, but she also engaged in oesophageal surgery. It was necessary to travel many miles at all hours to cope with chest injuries in Derby. Cardiac surgery on the unit expanded from closed mitral valvotomy and correction of congenital abnormalities, to closure of septal defects under hypothermia. During the period when cardio-pulmonary bypass was in its infancy in the UK, her senior colleague died at the age of 47. The setting up of an open-heart unit was discussed at regional level for some 10 months, and no replacement was made for her colleague. Any senior registrar acting as a locum would expect to obtain the definitive post, so Betty Slesser decided to work on her own until the correct decision could be made at regional level. In order to keep her waiting list down, some patients were transferred to Harefield hospital and a general surgeon shared the oesophageal workload in Leicester.

In 1965 Philip Slade was appointed, trained in the techniques of cardio-pulmonary by-pass by Sir Russell Brock and Oswald Tubbs: a cardiologist and cardiac radiologist were also appointed in order to provide better overall care for patients. Slade trained the existing staff in Leicester, including Betty Slesser, in the various techniques, and she was then able to take her fair share of the cardiac workload. Pulmonary work continued as the expertise in coronary surgery was developed in the area. Morale in the operating theatres during these long procedures and in intensive care units was essential, and Betty gave much of the necessary support.

She was a prominent and much respected member of the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the local Leicester Medical Society. Her major contribution over many years was recognised in 1974 when Betty was awarded the FRCS of our College ad eundem by the president, Sir Thomas Holmes Sellors.

In her later years Betty married John Chatterton, clerk to the County Council of Leicester, and inherited two children, Jill and James. She and her husband were mutually supportive and in 1978 Betty decided to retire at the age of 60 so that she could spend more time with her husband who had retired four years previously. She felt he was having a raw deal, meals at all hours and little companionship, and she herself was getting a little tired of late night calls and the daily stress, admitting she had enjoyed her working life enormously. Betty spent two happy and peaceful years with John before he died in 1980 at their home in Rothley, Leicestershire. She had many interests outside medicine including fly fishing and walking in the Highlands. She was a great traveller, particularly after retirement, and went on many cruises with friends.

On her husband's death she was befriended by Frank Doleman, a Leicester GP. Although they never shared a home, they continued to live near each other for 12 years until Frank died at the age of 92. She moved back to Scotland at the turn of the century to spend her remaining years in Netherbridge. She and John had a retreat there for many years and after he died she sold this and moved to 'Dornie', Netherbridge.

Betty Slesser died peacefully on 13 February 2010 at her home at the age of 91. She is survived by her two step-children, Jill and James, and is much missed by a close-knit family.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Morag Slesser and the RCS Edinburgh librarian, Marianne Smith].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England