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Biographical entry Thomas, Lewis Philip (1921 - 2009)

MRCS and FRCS 1947; BSc Wales 1941; MB BCh 1944; MCh 1959.

7 September 1921
Pyle, Glamorgan, Wales
26 August 2009
General surgeon


Lewis Thomas was a highly respected consultant general surgeon who worked in the Royal Gwent Hospital, Newport, from 1961 to 1986. Prior to this, he had been a senior lecturer in surgery at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary. He served the RCS, first as a surgical tutor under the Nuffield 'pilot scheme', and later as a regional adviser throughout the principality. He was also an RCS member on the court of governors of the University College of Swansea.

He was born on 7 September 1921 in Pyle, Glamorgan, the only child of David Thomas, a civil servant working in the Swansea bankruptcy court, and his wife Stella née Philips. When serving as a captain in the 14th Welsh regiment David Thomas was awarded the Military Cross for his actions with the supply division at the battle of Passendale at Ypres in July 1917. He experienced one of the first gas attacks in the First World War and had shell shock, being mentally scarred by these experiences. Lewis' mother died early and he had to 'grow up' quickly as his father needed support in many ways.

Lewis gained his secondary school education at Cardiff High School for Boys from 1933 to 1939 and progressed to the Welsh School of Medicine. He had a good academic record and gained the Willie Seager gold medal, a prize in surgery in 1944 and was awarded the Cardiff Medical Society prize in surgery.

In Cardiff he met Anne Gwendolen Tighe, daughter of the regional medical officer of health for Swansea, and who qualified herself in 1950. They married on 9 July1955.

On qualification Lewis became a house surgeon at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary and was greatly influenced by John Berry Haycraft, and in whose memory a surgical prize was established in Cardiff, and also D J Harris. After internships in Cardiff, he entered National Service as a captain in the RAMC in charge of a surgical division in Germany.

Having decided on a career in general surgery, he was a resident surgical officer in Newport and progressed to senior registrar at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary from 1950 for five years. In these days it was essential to obtain experience in the USA to improve career prospects, so he obtained a Fulbright scholarship to travel to the USA where he worked in Boston, Massachusetts, between 1955 and 1956. His mentor was Francis D Moore, Moseley professor of surgery in Harvard University and surgeon-in-chief at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. As assistant in surgery he was introduced to the concept of 'grand rounds', operating lists starting at 7am after residents did their ward rounds, and was to experience 'Franny' Moore's dynamic enthusiasm as a postgraduate teacher. His research work was performed in the Harvard Medical School laboratories and under the guidance of Joe Murray, later to receive a Nobel prize for his work on 'renal transplantation'.

In his definitive post in Newport, Lewis was recognised as a good diagnostician and a surgeon with great dexterity, whose hands 'simply hovered and delivered' with consummate ease. Many regarded him as one of the finest technicians in Wales. He built strong surgical teams throughout his professional life and his interest in medical education was most apparent as a co-editor with David Macfarlane of the highly successful Textbook of surgery (E & S Livingstone, 1964). This went into five editions, including an Italian translation in 1974. Contributors to this book were all 'young' consultants who themselves enjoyed undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. The two editors were contemporaries at medical school and also studied for the BSc in anatomy and physiology at the same time.

He sat on many committees for the Welsh Office and the Department of Health and Social Security, for whom he served in medical appeals tribunals.

Lewis enjoyed a happy family life, and he and Anne had four children, all of whom inherited their 'medical' genes. Richard, the eldest son, born in 1956, is a dentist who works in Poole. Philip, born in 1958, became a surgeon and is a urologist in Brighton and Peter, born in 1960, is a GP in South Wales. Sarah, the youngest, born in 1962, is a child psychiatrist in Winchester. Lewis showed great interest in all their activities, and was loved by family and his colleagues for his great loyalty and fairness, always being in charge in a quiet way.

He relaxed by playing golf as a faithful member of the Newport Golf Club. As a founding member of the New Quay Sailing Club, and commodore in 1978, he taught his family to sail. Two of his sons, Richard and Peter, have also been 'commodores' in 2002 and 2010. He was a keen photographer, almost professional in his pursuit of this, and was made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Lewis Thomas died on 26 August 2009 after a long illness of cardiac failure and prostatic cancer for which medication was a fine balancing act. Confined to one room for some 18 months, his wife, Anne, cared for him continuously and with great devotion. He leaves his wife, three sons and a daughter, and seven grandchildren, one of whom is studying medicine.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Philip Thomas; David A Macfarlane].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England