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Biographical entry Pannett, Charles Aubrey (1884 - 1969)

MRCS and FRCS 1910; BSc London 1903; MB BS 1906; MD 1907; LRCP 1910.

21 September 1884
29 July 1969
Anaesthetist , General surgeon and Pathologist


Charles Aubrey Pannett, born in Shepherd's Bush, London, on 21 September 1884, was the only son of Charles Yeatman Pannett, an ironmonger, and Louisa (née Sealey). An elder son had died in infancy. There were three daughters in the family.

The family was poor, so from his youth Pannett had accustomed himself to hard work, allowing little time for social activities. He went to the Westminster City School under Mr Goffin. About the age of fourteen, against his father's wish, he decided to become a doctor. With this in mind, after matriculating, he took the Intermediate Examination for BSc, in botany, zoology, chemistry and physics, which gained him entrance to St Mary's Hospital where, in his first year, he obtained a scholarship.

Those were vintage years at St Mary's: in 1902 Alexander Fleming, E H Kettle, C W Vining and Pannett were all successful in gaining scholarships. Throughout their medical course Pannett and Fleming were close rivals, sharing between them all the medical school prizes and the distinctions at London University examinations.

Pannett qualified in the autumn of 1906. In 1907 he obtained his MD, with a gold medal, and his FRCS in 1910. Surgery was his aim. "But if I were to be a surgeon," he wrote, "I wanted to enter this life from an angle not then usually considered. In those days the road to surgery was through the anatomy department. A man would spend years as a demonstrator of anatomy while waiting for a surgical appointment. As a student I was deeply struck by seeing operations performed which so obviously must be a severe strain on the normal adaptability of the body. Surgery, I perceived, in many cases profoundly disturbed the physiology of the man. It was clear to me that it was upon this which attention needed focusing if progress was to be made. So I determined to know more of the processes of disease and their effects upon normal physiology."

He decided to graduate in pathology, and obtained a post as junior assistant with a salary of £100 a year in the department of pathology under Almroth Wright. The influence of Wright was great and beneficial in shaping Pannett's outlook on life. But the work was arduous and, coming so soon after years of hard study and evening coaching, it told on a constitution which had never been robust. He developed tuberculosis and was obliged to spend the next four years, first in a sanatorium, then as house surgeon in a mental hospital at Westbury-on-Trym near Bristol. Here the work was light, so he was able to read for his MD in pathology, which he took with a gold medal.

In 1911 he became house surgeon at Plymouth, where he met his first wife, who was nursing there. That same year he had a chance of getting on the staff of St Mary's, but lost the job to Zachary Cope. Deciding to wait until he was accepted he became resident anaesthetist. At this time he was also assistant surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital. At length, in 1914, he became registrar at St Mary's and, with a more assured future, married Nora Kathleen Moon from Dublin.

His first war service was as surgeon on the luxury yacht Liberty, converted by Lord Tredegar into a naval hospital. In 1915 Pannett wrote an article on the role of the hospital ship. In 1916 he volunteered to go to Mesopotamia and was given the rank of Major. There he contracted typhoid and was invalided to Secunderabad where he did some surgery.

After the war Pannett returned to St Mary's and to private practice, living first in Maida Vale and then in St John's Wood. In 1922 he became assistant director to Clayton Green. When Clayton Green gave up to do more private practice, the newly formed Surgical Unit at St Mary's Hospital needed a full-time Professor of Surgery and Pannett was elected to the post, which he held for twenty-eight years. On this appointment he resigned his post at the Royal Free.

"At that time," wrote Sir Zachary Cope in 1950, "there was considerable discussion and criticism as to the wisdom of appointing such professors in London medical schools and in some cases the criticism was justified, but the most exacting critic was silenced when one pointed to the way in which Pannett filled the chair. Gradually he became an institution at St Mary's and round him a strong surgical department was built up which provided a source of inspiration and stimulation alike to students and staff."

"Pannett was best known for his consummate skill in doing partial gastrectomies," wrote Dickson Wright, "with removal of the ulcerated portion of the duodenum, and in 1929 he astonished the surgical world by announcing a sequence of a hundred of these operations without a death at a time when surgeons as a whole were losing twenty patients in every hundred operations."

Unlike some professors Pannett always did his own lectures. He also spent much time in the post mortem room watching his friend Professor Newcomb, the pathologist, at his work. After a hurried lunch they would adjourn to the PM room and have friendly arguments. Pannett always asserted that cancer was due to a virus to which Newcomb disagreed. Each would be on the lookout for evidence to support his theory to the discredit of the other, to the huge delight and education of the crowds of students who attended these informal and unrehearsed debates.

Pannett had a bench in the Wright-Fleming laboratory and was continually working on some problem concerning cancer. Later Arthur Compton worked with him in the physiology laboratory.

Pannett was Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1922 and 1929. During the late 1930s and early 1940s he acquired a reputation for being the most dreaded of examiners amongst Final FRCS candidates.

During the second world war Lord Moran, as Sector Officer, sent Pannett down to Basingstoke to make surgical arrangements at Park Prewett Mental Hospital which was converted into an Emergency Medical Service Hospital. Later in the war he worked at St Mary's, sleeping in a small room in the Wright-Fleming Institute.

During an air raid in March, 1944, Miss Diana Stanley, living in Radnor Place, was wounded while on fire-watching duty, and was taken into St Mary's and to Pannett's theatre. Ten years later, after his first wife had died, Pannett married Miss Stanley.

In 1950 Pannett retired from St Mary's and surgery. Although he had many interests outside medicine - painting, carving and clock-making - his heart and mind was still very much on his work, not as a surgeon, but as a research scientist. And so it seemed a stroke of good fortune when, in the early 1950s, he met Mr Frederick Pearson, the American millionaire and philanthropist, who lived at Liphook and was a patient of Pannett's brother-in-law, Dr Corry. Immediately these two men were drawn together in the common interest of the cancer problem and, until his death in 1958, Pearson helped to finance Pannett's work at St Mary's, giving him an X-ray apparatus.

But changes in the Wright-Fleming Institute in the late 1950s made it impossible for Pannett to stay on there, and in 1962, thanks to Sir Arthur Porritt, his former assistant and colleague at St Mary's, who was then President of the Royal College of Surgeons, facilities were given him in the Biochemistry Department to continue his research work. Thus, with the help and friendliness of Professor Cyril Long and many others there, began a new and exceedingly happy chapter in Pannett's long career, marred only by his inability to get consistent results in his research experiments. At this time Pannett also found time and energy to sit in committees of the Regional Hospital Board in Winchester.

Illness overtook Pannett in 1964. With a highly-strung, sensitive nature, he had always had a tendency to abdominal complaints and much back-ache in his youth. He developed a duodenal ulcer, admitting wryly that all doctors eventually get the disease they are best known for curing. But he did not allow either pain or fatigue to stand in his way and carried on with his work. Early in July 1969 he suffered a heart attack at the College, but told no one about this, continuing to go up to London until two days before he died, on 29 July at his home, after two coronary attacks, the second releasing him from a long, full, arduous, and very worthwhile life. As already noted he was twice married, first in 1914 to Nora Kathleen, daughter of John Moon of Dublin, who died in 1952; and in 1954 he married Diana Margaret Stanley, who survived him. There were no children of either marriage.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1969, 3, 363, 479; Lancet 1969, 2, 330].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England