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Biographical entry Griffiths, Victor George (1920 - 2014)

MBE 2002; NOM Malta 1996; BSc Malta 1939; MD 1942; FRCS 1945.

Born
23 September 1920
Paola, Malta
Died
28 March 2014
Occupation
Anatomist and General surgeon

Details

Of those serving the needs of Malta and its population after the Second World War, the name of Victor Griffiths stands out as a most remarkable man. A gifted general surgeon, he had a very wide repertoire, including thoracic surgery. He served Malta as professor of surgery and of anatomy over many years and was described on his death by a former trainee, Michael Camilleri of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA 'as an expert diagnostician, a technically gifted thyroid, prostate, breast, stomach, biliary and colonic surgeon. He based his craft on mastery of anatomy and respect for the physiological consequences of different surgical options that led him to choose the least traumatic one'. Over a long professional life, he trained many surgeons who now practise in various parts of the world. He was a very cultured man with wide ranging interests and was the last local civilian surgeon to the Royal Navy in Malta.

He was born on 23 September 1920 in Paola, a town in the Grand Harbour area of Malta. Known for having the largest parish church on the island and the Hal Safleni Hypogeum (Neolithic underground temple and burial place), it also has the only mosque and Islamic cultural centre in Malta. Victor was the son of William Edward Griffiths and Liberata Jessie Chapman. Both the Griffiths and Chapman families had naval connections, and came out to Malta in the 19th century. His father worked in the expense accounts department of the Royal Naval Dockyard, and was active in Lord Strickland's Constitutional Party, a pro-British political party, whose followers were known as 'Striklandjani'. Reputedly his father had an undercover role in intelligence and security in the Dockyard. His father had two daughters from a previous marriage and Victor Griffiths was the eldest of four sons of a second marriage.

Victor Griffiths received his education at HM Dockyard School and the Lyceum, the oldest secondary school in Malta, before going to the Royal University of Malta, where he qualified with a BSc in 1939 and an MD in 1942. Local house appointments were undertaken after qualification, but he felt it was necessary to gain further experience in the UK, hopefully proceeding a surgical career. In Malta his surgical mentor was Peter-Paul Debono, whom he regarded as a master-surgeon.

During his university medical training he met Mary Dolores Grech Marguerat, the daughter of Oreste Grech Marguerat and one of the few female medical students in his year. She and Victor often sat at lectures in close proximity: Mary, in the hope of improving her own lecture notes, borrowed those of Victor. On one occasion, Victor passed on a page on which was written a single sentence: 'Marie, je t'aime'! Their courtship was in part continued on long walks into the country village where her family had been evacuated. They both qualified in 1942, and married in April 1949.

In November 1942, Malta had its first outbreak of poliomyelitis and a second occurred in 1945. Hugh Seddon of Oxford had launched orthopaedic services on the island, and the governor offered Verdala Castle, now the president's summer residence, as a children's orthopaedic hospital. Mary Marguerat became the medical officer and was also a founder of the Malta Polio Fund, which, having widened it scope, is still active today.

From 1945 Victor Griffiths continued his studies on a Maltese government scholarship in England with the aim of obtaining the FRCS in one year, which, to everyone's surprise, he did. Advised to get more experience in provincial hospitals, he worked at the Royal United Hospital Bath and in other registrar posts. For a period he worked at Hammersmith Hospital and the British Postgraduate Medical School under many of the top surgeons, including George Grey Turner, who had come down from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is thought he visited other London teaching hospitals, as his study wall had shields, not only of the British Postgraduate Medical School, but of St Bartholomew's, Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals.

On returning to Malta in 1947, Victor Griffiths was appointed as a consultant surgeon, and in 1960, a lecturer in surgery. In 1969 he succeeded Alfred Craig as professor and head of surgery at the University of Malta and director of surgery at the health department, where he proved an inspiration to medical students and house surgeons alike. He relinquished this post in 1977 as a result of the medical union's dispute with the Dom Mintoff government. He was appointed as a consultant adviser and director of the department of surgery in 1987, retiring in 1991. From 2003 to 2008 he was university ombudsman, an ideal person to settle disputes at any level.

A great believer in teamwork in the care of patients, with his colleague Alex J Warrington he performed many combined procedures, despite limited resources. The Griffiths-Warrington team performed synchronous combined abdominoperineal resection of the large intestine in patients with chronic ulcerative colitis, alternating their roles as the abdominal or perineal surgeons to hone their skills in the different parts of the surgery. During surgery he taught continually, peppering assistants and students with questions and training them to marshal their thoughts. He encouraged them to think about current practice and when conventional measures should be questioned or even abandoned.

Victor Griffiths had a long interest in and fascination for the basic sciences, and was appointed professor of anatomy to the University of Malta in 1953. To glean ideas on the running a professorial department, he went back to England. From October 1953 to March 1954 he joined Alec J E Cave as an honorary lecturer in the department of anatomy, St Bartholomew's Medical School. The main author of this tribute, then demonstrating anatomy under Cave, found Griffiths a stimulating colleague with a wide anatomical knowledge, an excellent teacher of students as well as a fair examiner of their knowledge. Both Alec Cave and Victor Griffiths had the ability to make any lecture more interesting by building up blackboard pictures in coloured chalks. Throughout his active university life and beyond Griffiths' talks were, in addition to their academic value, inspiring in their use of the English language and syntax. It was said of him that: 'Compared with the way this eloquent speaker expressed words, more recent presentations look thin and shallow despite today's use of audio-visual technology.' In 1990, in retirement, Griffiths became the first editor of BOLD, the principal publication of the International Institute on Ageing, United Nations - Malta, and only stepped down in 2012.

Outside medicine, he was a voracious reader with an insatiable appetite for learning. He was a founder member of the British Cultural Association in 1979 and became its chairman in 1988. He was a great supporter of English teaching in Maltese schools through 'speak your mind' debates with sixth form pupils.

Many honours came his way: he was a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and in 1996 received Malta's National Order of Merit. In 2002 he became a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), in recognition of his work promoting relations between the United Kingdom and Malta, especially in medicine, culture and education. It was presented to him by the British High Commissioner on behalf of HM The Queen.

Victor and Mary had two children. Their first child, Margaret Mary, was born in May 1950. She read languages at Bristol University, and became an educator at university and school level, and currently works in the field of dyslexia. She married Henry Naud and has two children, Chantal and Robin. Chantal has two sons, so Victor Griffiths became a great- grandfather before he died. Victor and Mary's second child, William Edward Griffiths, was born in January 1955, studied natural sciences at Oxford University and followed his parents into medicine. After house appointments in Bath and Oxford and a short spell of missionary hospital work in Zambia, he entered general practice in Richmond, Surrey. He married Lucy Boyce.

Sadly, Victor Griffiths recognised the onset of his own Alzheimer's disease. He died on 28 March 2014, aged 93, and was survived by his wife Mary, two children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

N Alan Green
William E Griffiths

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2014 348 3239; Times of Malta 6 April 2014 www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20140406/social/Victor-Griffiths-1-.513766 - accessed 9 July 2014; BOLD Vol 24 No 3 May 2014 p1, editorial www.inia.org.mt/data/images/bold/BOLD_MAY_2014.pdf - accessed 9 July 2014; The Medical Association of Malta - 'Doctors Plus' 10 December 2009 www.mam.org.mt/newsdetail.asp?i=941&c=1 - accessed 9 July 2014].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England