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Biographical entry Scurr, Cyril Frederick (1920 - 2012)

CBE 1980; LVO 1952; MRCS 1941; MB BS London 1942; DA 1947; FRCS 1974; FFA RCS 1953; Hon FFA RCSI 1977.

14 July 1920
6 July 2012


Anaesthesia was introduced into surgery in 1846 and for the first 100 years little progress was made. It remained essentially a craft learned by experience rather than a science. Full-time anaesthetists were rare, anaesthetics being administered by general practitioners or any hospital doctors. The 1940s were to change all this. The introduction of the muscle-paralysing drug curare not only altered the whole approach to anaesthesia, but demanded a knowledge of respiratory and circulatory physiology that scarcely existed at the time. It was the good fortune for anaesthesia that Cyril Scurr was one of those who entered the specialty at this time: over his lifetime he made a large contribution to its development from a craft to a science.

Cyril Frederick Scurr was born on 14 July 1920 in Hampstead, London, the eldest son of Cyril Albert Scurr, a pharmacist who also practised as an optician, and Mabel Rose Scurr. He was educated at Finchley Grammar School and then the North London Polytechnic College, where he took a BSc before starting medical studies in London at King's College and Westminster Medical School. As a student he won the Abrahams pathology prize and the paediatric class prize, and, after passing his qualifying examination, he had to wait until his 21st birthday to become registered as a doctor in 1941.

The following year he was called into the Royal Army Medical Corps, where he served as an anaesthetist in North Africa, Greece and Italy.

He was demobilised in 1947 and returned to the Westminster as a registrar. In 1949 was appointed as a consultant. Variously described by family and colleagues as austere, shy and taciturn, he could on occasion reveal a somewhat quirky sense of humour. He was immensely far-sighted and hard-working, seeing clearly what needed to be done to bring anaesthesia into the forefront of medical specialties. At the Westminster he met others with the same passion, particularly Stanley Feldman, with whom he established a close collaboration. He enjoyed clinical research and had a phenomenal memory for everything he had read.

Surgery was becoming increasing complex and in particular the introduction of cardiac surgery demanded careful research. Scurr was instrumental in setting up the department of clinical measurement at the Westminster. Here under Percy Cliffe new technologies and drugs were introduced, including new neuromuscular blocking agents, and drugs to induce hypotension and respiratory homeostasis. Scurr was fully involved with this, whilst he also collaborated with Charles Drew in the use of profound hypothermia for cardiac surgery. He was an expert anaesthetist who formed a close and warm relationship with many of the surgeons with whom he worked. He was intolerant of those trainees who did not meet his exacting standards, and they sometimes found themselves at the receiving end of some witty, barbed invective.

With Stanley Feldman he published Scientific foundations of anaesthesia (London, Heinemann Medical, 1970) a textbook that became a classic. It was translated into five languages and ran to four editions. This was followed by Mechanism of drugs in anaesthesia (London, E Arnold, 1987), co-edited with W D Paton.

Scurr was also on the staff of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, and played a major role in raising funds to rebuild it as a private Roman Catholic hospital in London.

In 1951, with Robert Machray, he attended King George VI for his lung resection, carried out at Buckingham Palace by Sir Clement Price-Thomas.

Scurr was passionate that anaesthetists should respond to the challenge of becoming scientists and it was no doubt his conviction that prompted him to extend his activities into medical politics. From 1961 to 1977 he served on the board of the Faculty of Anaesthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (later to become the Royal College of Anaesthetists) and was elected dean from 1970 to 1973. As dean he served on the council of the Royal College of Surgeons. On committees he was noted for a dry laconic manner that 'wouldn't put up with any chit-chat'. From 1976 to 1978 he was president of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland (AAGBI) and from 1978 to 1979 he was president of the anaesthesia section of the Royal Society of Medicine.

During this period Scurr became involved in several important initiatives. These included the original Confidential Enquiry into Perioperative Deaths in 1982, that led on to the present National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death, to which all those involved in operative and perioperative care contribute. With AAGBI he took part in the development of a scheme whereby sick doctors may obtain confidential advice about their problems in a non-threatening way. And, with the General Medical Council, he helped to establish a means of assessing the language qualifications of foreign doctors. He served on numerous national committees and was awarded many medals, prizes and lectureships.

Scurr's personal interests were photography and gardening. He was very much a 'home' man who seldom went far afield, not even to visit local places of interest. His refusal to travel meant that he was not as well-known on the international circuit as he should have been.

On demobilisation in 1947 he had married Isabel Jean Spiller, the daughter of Leonard Spiller of New Barnett. They had four children - Judith Ann, a cytopathologist in Swindon, Martin John, a general practitioner in London and adviser to the Dr Martin TV series and the Daily Mail, David, a retired architect, and Andrew James, an anaesthetist and intensive care specialist in Ealing.

Cyril Scurr had a long retirement and died on 6 July 2012 aged 91.

Aileen K Adams

Sources used to compile this entry: [Martin Scurr; Stanley Feldman; The Times 25 July 2012; BMJ 2012 345 6360; Who was Who - accessed 5 Jan 2012].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England