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Biographical entry Thompson, Albert Edward (1929 - 2011)

MB BS London 1955; MS 1966; FRCS 1959.

16 April 1929
Newport, Monmouthshire
20 September 2011
General surgeon


Albert ('Bert') Thompson was a general and transplant surgeon at St Thomas' Hospital, London. He was born on 16 April 1928 in Newport, Monmouthshire, the son of John Percy Thompson (known as 'Jack') and Cordelia Ann Leach, a farmer's daughter. His father was a wholesale butcher with Swift and Co of Bristol, the city where Bert was educated, first at Sefton Park Elementary School and later at Queen Elizabeth's Hospital School. Here he excelled at sport as well as his academic studies, being in the first XV rugby and XI cricket teams. He matriculated in 1945 and obtained his higher school certificate in 1948. He was accepted to study medicine at St Mary's Hospital Medical School as a consequence of his academic and sporting prowess, and played with great distinction for the student sides at both rugby and cricket.

He qualified in 1953 and, after pre-registration house posts with Sir Arthur Porritt and Arthur Dickson Wright, he spent some time in general practice before deciding on a career in surgery. He returned to St Mary's, where he progressed through the registrar and senior registrar grades, before being appointed as the assistant director of the surgical unit under Willy Irvine. Bert was an excellent technical surgeon and in this period he developed his craft to a very high level. He would often be summoned to theatre to help his colleague, and managed these difficult situations with much tact and a great deal of skill and diplomacy.

He published some very important outcomes data on dissecting aneurysms with Lance Bromley around this time, which demonstrated that uncomplicated type B dissections did well with conservative management. He was part of the team at St Mary's that was developing renal transplant surgery in the United Kingdom. This included Mike Snell and Ian Kenyon, who, with Felix Eastcott, had taken over the legacy of Charles Rob's vascular practice. Bert then spent some time in the USA, in Lexington, Kentucky, enhancing his transplant experience.

In the early seventies St Thomas' decided to set up a transplant service and Bert applied to be the first transplant surgeon. Despite the presence of a strong local candidate who had been groomed for the post, Bert was appointed to the staff as a general surgeon with a special interest in transplantation. He was single handed and had most of his general surgical beds at Lambeth hospital, where he became a valued member of the staff. Despite poor facilities, a split site practice and indifferent and unenthusiastic junior staff, Bert's persistence, bloody-mindedness and attention to detail prevailed. Over the next several years he worked phenomenally hard to develop transplantation and provide a vascular access service to the renal unit, while still carrying out a full general surgical practice. In the late 1970s and early 1980s some junior staff began to take an interest and help with this service, which had initially been left to Bert to perform largely unaided. Retrievals were often carried out in the middle of the night in many outlying hospitals in the south east of England and were followed by a dash back to Thomas' for the transplant. Bert always treated his patients with utmost courtesy and knew all his renal failure patients in great detail, often looking after them on a daily basis before undertaking a successful transplant. This intimate knowledge equally applied to many of his general patients, who were seen regularly in clinics where he acted as an auxiliary general practitioner.

His house surgeon was instructed to ring him up and discuss his inpatients with him every evening before he went to bed. Woe betide any unfortunate who did not know the serum creatinine, when asked! This attention to detail was an excellent learning experience for the house officer, but could lead to registrars being left out of the loop, perhaps a hang-over from the early years.

During this period, Bert initiated and supervised a number of research projects, with Jim Wellwood, Roger Pulvertaft and Richard Corbett all completing theses on aspects of monitoring transplant rejection often involving the measurement of NAGs (N-acetyl-D-glucosaminidase). Much of this work was published in prestigious surgical journals and brought international recognition at the time, although its initial promise has not stood the test of time. However, the concept that a blood or urine test could recognise early rejection remains an important goal.

Bert was a forceful, committed and dogmatic undergraduate teacher, who took his responsibilities seriously. He would terrorise firms of students at the start of the attachment, but would often be friends with them by time that they had to move on. He would then maintain these friendships for the rest of their careers. He especially enjoyed it if they gave as good as they got! He was a surprisingly popular teacher.

He had a similar robust relationship with many of the renal physicians, who were often less able to cope with his dogmatic decrees. He developed a circle of colleagues he could and would trust, and some that he would not, and this sadly led to some unresolved conflicts with senior surgeons in his own hospital. Despite these strictures, Bert became chairman of the medical and surgical officers' staff committee and chairman of the district management board. He had been joined on the staff by a number of younger colleagues with whom he had good relations. A proper transplant service was developed and by now he also had a considerable gastro-oesophageal practice, which he clearly enjoyed. This included collaborating with Sir Donald Harrison's unit at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in Gray's Inn Road, where he performed gastric pull-ups in patients with pharyngeal and upper oesophageal cancer.

He suddenly became involved in a major conflict with the hospital managers at St Thomas' over generic patients and surgical beds, where he painted himself into a corner, with a threat of resignation that was unfortunately accepted, with neither side backing down. For the next 20 or so years he became a 'peripatetic surgeon', locuming at many district general hospitals in southern England. He often spent long periods in single hospitals such as the Royal Marsden and St Peter's, Chertsey, where he continued to provide excellent surgical cover and teaching to itinerant, neglected undergraduates. He remained working well after the standard retirement date because he loved surgery and looking after patients, although he abandoned transplantation when he left St Thomas'.

He sadly separated from his wife, but maintained strong links with his family of four children (and many grandchildren), of whom he was immensely proud. In latter years, when he had given up rugby and even cricket, he still retained his interest in golf and sailing. For many years he shared a sailing boat with Crawford Jamieson, which they bought from Frank Cockett with another partner. He was a notoriously bad sailor, managing to hit a buoy in the Solent with all his crew screaming warnings of impending disaster. There were also occasions when the boat was run aground. He was a very enthusiastic skier and took up flying late in his career, sharing a plane with Sir Stanley Simmonds. Apparently his navigation skills were legendary, with the plane being taken down low to read motorway signs in France!

Aged 59 he developed a severe headache and started to lose consciousness one morning, before calling Norman Jones, who confirmed a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage caused by a ruptured berry aneurysm, which was successfully clipped off at the National Hospital, Queen Square. He clearly felt he had been given a second lease of life. In his early eighties he developed bowel symptoms that were either neglected or missed, and presented too late for anything but palliative surgery. By this time he had rediscovered a great friendship with Thelma Bates, a radiotherapist oncologist at St Thomas', who organised his terminal care, surrounded by friends, of whom there were a great many, and his beloved family. He died on 20 September 2011, aged 83.

Kevin Burnand

The Royal College of Surgeons of England