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Biographical entry Paneth, Matthias (1921 - 2011)

BM BCh Oxford 1944; FRCS 1950.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
31 August 2011
Cardiothoracic surgeon


Mathias Paneth was a cardiothoracic surgeon at the Brompton Hospital, London. He was born in Amsterdam in 1921, the son of a doctor who subsequently worked as a surgeon in Sumatra, where he developed a special interest in tuberculosis surgery. Matt was educated at Gordonstoun and Christ Church, Oxford.

After National Service and junior medical posts at the Fulham, Royal Marsden and the Brompton hospitals, he was awarded a Fulbright research fellowship in 1957 to work for a year in Minneapolis with Walton Lillehei, a pioneer of open-heart surgery in children, who used a new type of artificial heart-lung machine designed by his own team. As was the custom in the USA, this led to a number of joint surgical articles.

Matt returned to the Brompton Hospital as a senior registrar and two years later was appointed to the consultant staff as a full-time surgeon on the retirement of Russell Brock (later Lord Brock). At the Brompton he was always available to operate and give advice to the junior staff. This availability and willingness to give advice continued until his retirement.

At the Brompton Hospital he pioneered heart surgery on infants and later heart valve replacement and repair in adults, with the adequacy of the procedure based on a new non-invasive technique of echocardiography, which allowed assessment of the efficacy of the repair at operation, if not adequate the repair could be immediately modified. Later he was associated with the new techniques of coronary artery bypass surgery.

Matt was a tall imposing figure with considerable presence. He had a great sense of humour and an enormous fund of anecdotes, which he would tell with a deadpan face. He was prone to make outrageous statements concerning his colleagues and current events, which were disconcerting to his listeners unless they realised that they were not meant to be taken seriously. He was often stern with his trainees and is reported to have frequently asked in the operating theatre 'Who is the most important person in this room?' They would understandably reply 'Why, you sir', to which he would say 'No, of course not, it is the patient'.

He was a founder member of 'Pete's Club', the brain-child of Peter Jones when he was senior registrar to Sir Clement Price Thomas and who subsequently became a consultant in Manchester and later at Westminster Hospital, London. The writer was secretary of the club from its foundation in 1960 until the final meeting in 1988. We were all contemporary cardiothoracic surgeons and we met twice yearly to discuss failures and errors of judgement - the only rule of the club was that 'no case that is presented shall throw credit on the presenter'. We learnt a lot from these meetings, much more than at national meetings where only good results would be reported.

Matt would teach his juniors to cut tissue, never to wipe (a crude technique often used by inexperienced surgeons) - 'What you have cut, you can sew,' he would say 'but what you have torn apart cannot be put back together again'. He resurrected the operation of emergency pulmonary embolectomy under cardiopulmonary bypass and he organised a mobile surgical team to carry out this procedure in peripheral hospitals. The technique was soon superseded by intravenous high dosage streptokinase therapy to dissolve the clot in the pulmonary artery.

Matt was not a prolific writer of surgical articles, but his surgical technique for lung surgery was well described in a book he co-authored entitled Fundamental techniques in pulmonary and oesophageal surgery (London, Springer-Verlag, c.1987).

Before going to the United States he had married Shirley Stansbie, with whom he had two daughters, one of whom became a lawyer and was appointed a crown court judge in 2011. Matt died on 31 August 2011, only ten days after an investigation for tiredness, which had revealed an inoperable bronchial carcinoma, for which he wisely refused any treatment. He had not smoked since the 1950s.

Raymond Hurt

Sources used to compile this entry: [Shirley Paneth; personal knowledge; The Times 5 October 2011].

The Royal College of Surgeons