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Biographical entry Gillis, Leon (1908 - 1967)

MBE 1947; MRCS and FRCS 1945; MB BCh Witwatersrand 1935; MCh Orth Liverpool 1937; DLO 1940; FRCS Edin 1942.

4 September 1908
9 August 1967
Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Orthopaedic surgeon


Leon Gillis was born 4 September 1908, and had his schooling and undergraduate medical education in South Africa, obtaining the degrees of bachelor of medicine and of surgery at Witwatersrand University in 1935. He then came to England for postgraduate education and after study at Liverpool, in 1937 became master of orthopaedic surgery of that University. A spell in general practice and experience in many short term appointments in and around Liverpool followed. He obtained the diploma of laryngo-otology of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, London and in 1942 became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Shortly after, he was appointed orthopaedic surgeon to Queen Mary's (Roehampton) Hospital. In 1945, when he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, he realized that he had found the surgical work for which he was fitted and he continued in this until his death over twenty years later.

For the first quarter of a century of its existence, Queen Mary's Hospital had been occupied particularly by amputees, mostly from the first world war and the surgical control and direction was largely in the hands of Muirhead Little, Elmslie, and Verrall; George Perkins joined the staff during the second world war and associated himself with Kelham in amputation policy. The appointment of Gillis differed from that of these surgeons as he spent nearly full time at Roehampton and in his earlier years had few outside demands on his services. He took charge of wards occupied by soldiers and pensioners suffering from old and recent 'orthopaedic lesions'. The majority were the result of major wounds and many required amputation. A visit to the wards and study of the lectures and writing of Gillis showed his great experience and views on amputations. There was a time when he was one of the very few specialists in such operations. As an operator he was thoughtful, careful and meticulous in his technique. He was greatly interested in the provision of artificial limbs for those whose limbs he had amputated.

His knowledge of his subject was recognized in his appointment as Arris and Gale lecturer (1948), as Hunterian Professor (1956), as Joseph Henry lecturer (1960) and Erasmus Wilson demonstrator (1964). Collectively these lectures were mostly concerned with the child amputee. In considering advances he referred to kineplastic amputations and Krukenberg's operation and described what was current teaching for irrecoverable brachial plexus injury, the arm being amputated and shoulder arthrodesed. Many examples of treatment for long bone deficiency were described and the help that can be given for the absence of one or more limbs. The surgery advisable before fitting of a prosthesis was discussed. He described prostheses and other appliances giving particular information about fixation to the body and the many terminal devices that are used with artificial limbs. Powered limbs had not been available when this was published. The stage after the provision of the appliance, he points out, is the decision regarding the correct job for child or adult.

As a teacher he had greater opportunity to help postgraduates than undergraduates and his work was more suited for such. However, during the last fifteen years at Roehampton there was a proportion of general orthopaedic work, which increased when the hospital became one of the Westminster group of hospitals. He had held appointments in orthopaedic surgery at East Ham Hospital and at Barking Hospital and for nearly twenty years was consulting orthopaedic surgeon to St John's Hospital, Battersea and since 1956 had been chairman of the medical committee.

As an author he was responsible for three books, of which Amputations (1954) and Artificial limbs (1957) are well-known. Of the contributions to textbooks, those on amputations in Operative surgery, by Charles Rob and Rodney Smith (1956-8), are important. Of his original articles, the most noteworthy are Cancer as a sequel to war wounds, Six cases of arthroplasty of the hip in amputations, and those on the nursing care of amputations. These contributions to contemporary specialist surgery have considerable merit.

Gillis was a fellow of the British Orthopaedic Association, a Founder fellow of the British Chapter of the International College of Surgeons and a Founder Fellow of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of South Africa. In 1947 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil Division). He showed his ability more by his writings than by conversation and there is little doubt that he enjoyed this writing as much as his home life and his motor car.

He was married, but left no children. He died in Birmingham, Alabama, on 9 August following an operation.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1967, 3, 562, with portrait, by AGR; Lancet 1967, 2, with appreciation by AWLK; Wandsworth Borough News 18 August 1967, 1].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England