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Biographical entry Kelly, Sir Robert Ernest (1879 - 1944)

KB 1939; CB 1916; M and FRCS 14 December 1905; BSc Victoria University 1899; Liverpool 1901; MD 1905.

7 April 1879
16 November 1944
General surgeon


Born 7 April 1879, the fifth child and fourth son of Robert Kelly, a leading iron merchant of Liverpool, and his wife, née Brazier. He was educated at the Liverpool Institute and University College, then a constituent of the Victoria University. He was one of the first medical graduates of the University of Liverpool when it was constituted. At school and college he won many prizes; he was also Robert Gee Fellow in anatomy, Holt Fellow, and Alexander Fellow in pathology; he distinguished himself in forensic medicine and in surgery, and was one of the ablest pupils in the physiology school, then probably the best in England under Professor Charles Sherrington. He received his clinical training at the Royal Infirmary, where he served as house surgeon and became in due course assistant surgeon, and surgeon, and ultimately consulting surgeon. He was also elected to the teaching staff of the University, first as lecturer in surgery and from 1922 to 1939 as professor of surgery; on retirement from the chair he was granted the title of emeritus professor, and he was created a Knight Bachelor. Kelly was keenly interested in the Liverpool Medical Institution and served twice as its president, actively promoting its work.

During the first world war Kelly served as consulting surgeon to the British Forces at Salonika, with the temporary rank of colonel, AMS. He had supervision of 21,000 beds, and was active in organizing rehabilitation centres and in having Thomas's splints, a Liverpool invention, produced. He was created CB for his services in 1916, and afterwards served on the Army Council Medical Advisory Board. He also received the Medaille d'Honneur des Épidémies for his work at Salonika. Kelly was elected to the council of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1928 and served his full sixteen years with distinction, retiring only a few months before his death. He was a vice-president 1938-40, and gave the Bradshaw lecture in 1938 on "Recurrent peptic ulceration, causes of, and design for second operation on stomach". In 1937 he was president of the British Medical Association, which held its annual meeting in Liverpool that year; and the same year took charge of the surgical unit at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, for some weeks under the Hospital's scheme for external visitors. He represented Liverpool University on the General Medical Council.

Kelly remained throughout his career a general surgeon and was equally interested and equally skilful in many branches, orthopaedics and brain surgery making perhaps the greatest appeal to his talents. He was always attracted by mechanically ingenious instruments and for some time employed a hand-driven de Martel's trephine, the power being supplied by his assistants. His use of Souttar's craniotome in an operation for removal of a cerebral tuberculoma was filmed. In accordance with Liverpool tradition Kelly welcomed American surgeons passing through the city, and was always in touch with American surgical thought. In 1912 he introduced to England from America the tracheal administration of ether. As a teacher Kelly employed the simplest methods: his illustration of compression fractures of the skull on an orange, and spiral fractures of the tibia on a piece of chalk, were long remembered by his students; and he followed Thelwall Thomas's tradition of using a multicoloured pencil for his excellent line drawings. Kelly was a man of great personal charm, naturally modest and tactful, and of absolute integrity. In fact his quiet easy manner almost disguised his great intellectual and administrative gifts. He played a leading part in medical and cultural affairs in Liverpool. He carried through the formation of the Royal Liverpool United Hospitals out of the four general hospitals, and also urged the fusion of the local hospitals and was an activator of the Liverpool Associated Voluntary Hospitals Board.

Music was his chief recreation; he was prominent in the management of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, and was an excellent amateur cellist. He was also a patron of the drama, especially at the Liverpool Playhouse; and seldom missed an interesting dramatic production, such as those at the Westminster Theatre, when in London. He also collected furniture and glass; and was skilful at colour photography. He was well read, particularly in the literature of the border territory between science and philosophy. But with all these earnest interests he remained a most approachable and sociable man of ready hospitality. Though not much of a games player he was elected captain of the Wallasey Golf Club. Kelly married on 5 October 1911 Averill Edith Irma, daughter of James Edlington M'Dougall, MD, of Liverpool and afterwards of Limpsfield, Surrey. Lady Kelly survived him with one daughter, an honours graduate in English literature at Oxford. Sir Robert Kelly died on 16 November 1944 at his own house, 80 Rodney Street, Liverpool. A memorial service was held in Liverpool Cathedral on 23 November, conducted by the Bishops of Liverpool and Warrington and the Dean of Liverpool. He left contingent bequests of £10,000 each to the Royal College of Surgeons and the University of Liverpool for research.

Suture of crucial ligaments of knee joint. Liverpool med-chir J 1913, 33, 488. Surgery in Salonika, with Sir T Crisp English. Brit med J 1918, 1, 305.
Operation for chronic dislocation of peroneal tendons. Brit J Surg 1920, 7, 502. Surgery of intracranial tumours. Liverpool med-chir J 1932, 40, 57-63.
Three enteroliths in single coil of jejunum. Brit J Surg 1932, 20, 168-170.
Case of parathyroid tumour associated with generalized osteitis fibrosa, with H Cohen. Brit J Surg 1933, 20, 472-478.
Surgical treatment of syringomyelia. Trans Med Soc Lond 1935, 58, 141.
Ideal internship. Hospitals, 1936, 10, 102.
Early history of the Liverpool Medical Institution. Med Press, 1937, 194, 496. Surgery one hundred years ago. Lancet, 1937, 1, 1361.
Recurrent peptic ulceration, Bradshaw lecture. Lancet, 1939, 1, 1-5.
Cancer from the point of view of the surgeon. Brit J Radiol 1939, 12, 523.
Some experiences of vascular surgery during and after the last war, Annual oration 1942. Trans Med Soc Lond 1943, 63, 168-177.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Sunday Times, 19 November 1944; The Times, 20 November 1944, p 6f and 24 November, p 7b, memorial service; Brit med J 1944, 2, 738, with portrait, and eulogy by Prof Henry Cohen, MD FRCP; Lancet, 1944, 2, 740, with portrait, and eulogy by R Coope, MD FRCP; Med Press, 1944, 212, 370; Newcastle med J 1943, 22, 1-4, by G Grey Turner, FRCS; Surgery, 1943, 14, 1, by R Matas, Hon FRCS; information given by Lady Kelly; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England