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Biographical entry Roberts, James Ernest Heleme (1881 - 1948)

OBE 1919; MRCS 10 May 1906; FRCS 9 December 1909; MB BS London 1908; LRCP 1906.

23 August 1881
West Bromwich, Staffordshire
25 August 1948
Ottershaw, Surrey
Thoracic surgeon


Born 23 August 1881 at West Bromwich, Staffordshire, son of James Roberts, engineer and ironfounder, and Mary Jane Helme, his wife. His father was managing director of J and S Roberts, ironfounders of Swan Village. He was educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, and at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He took the Conjoint qualification in 1906, won honours in surgery at the London MB BS examination 1908, and took the Fellowship in 1909. He was house surgeon at St Luke's Hospital and at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and to C B Lockwood at St Bartholomew's. He was then appointed demonstrator of surgical pathology and at the same time chief assistant surgeon to out-patients, and later demonstrator of operative surgery, at St Bartholomew's. He became in due course surgical registrar and chief assistant in the orthopaedic department. He was appointed in 1913 assistant surgeon to the East London Hospital for Children. Roberts served as a major, RAMC, in the war of 1914-18, at No 41 casualty clearing station in France and as surgical specialist at No 5 General Hospital; he was mentioned three times in despatches. His experience attracted him from orthopaedic to thoracic surgery.

On his return to civil work he joined the staff of Brompton Hospital in 1919 and devoted most of his energy to this work, developing particularly the treatment of empyema. He was the first to use active negative pressure suction, and his operation for the closure of old chronic empyema cavities was the most efficient method devised up to the time of his death. With H P Nelson he introduced one-stage lobectomy. He was also in 1919 appointed assistant surgeon at St Bartholomew's, and became surgeon in 1933. On his retirement in 1946 he was elected consulting surgeon, and emeritus surgeon at Brompton. He was also surgeon to Queen Mary's Hospital at Roehampton, and consultant thoracic surgeon to the London County Council's Sanatoria.

Roberts was president in turn of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the Tuberculosis Association, and the Medical Society of London, where he gave the Lettsomian lectures in 1935 on the surgery of pleural and pulmonary infection. He was a member of the International Society of Surgery and joint honorary treasurer of its twelfth Congress held at the College in September 1947; a member of the Belgian and Polish Surgical Societies, and of the American Association of Thoracic Surgeons. He also served on the Ministry of Health's standing advisory committee on tuberculosis from its creation till his death, and for ten years on the Joint Tuberculosis Council.

Roberts was an excellent teacher who created a school of thoracic surgeons to carry on his work. He spent his holidays in the Alps, and became an authority on alpine plants and on dragon-flies. He married on 30 December 1916 Coral, daughter of Captain J A Elmslie and sister of R C Elmslie, orthopaedic surgeon to St Bartholomew's. She survived him but without children. He died at The Croft, Ottershaw, Surrey, on 25 August 1948, aged 67, after a long illness. He had practised at 89 Harley Street. A memorial service was held at St Bartholomew-the-Less on 21 September 1948.

Roberts based his surgical innovations on a sound knowledge of mechanical and physiological principles, combined with clinical and observational acumen. He was of a brusque fighting spirit, often absentminded and absorbed in his own work, but essentially kindly, loyal, and encouraging to younger men. He was one of the great pioneers of chest surgery, full of ideas and courage, with a deep concern for the general welfare of his patients especially children, and a wide knowledge of the practical aspects of many branches of medicine.

Pulmonary lobectomy, with H P Nelson. Brit J Surg 1933, 21, 277.
The surgery of pleural and pulmonary infection, Lettsomian lectures. Trans Med Soc Lond 1935, 58, 183.
Extrapleural pneumothorax. Brit J Tuberc 1938, 32, 68.
Primary carcinoma of the lung. Med Press, 1940, 203, 88.
Thoracic surgery, in Grey Turner's Modern operative surgery, 3rd edition, 1943,
1, 305.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1948, 2, 398, with eulogy by C P Thomas, FRCS; Brit med J 1948, 2, 501; St Bart's Hosp J 1948, 52, 169, funeral oration by M D delivered at St Bartholomew-the-Less, 21 September 1948; information from Mrs Roberts].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England