93-Year-Old Surgeon Shares Tales of the Operating Theatre

Siobhan Harris


August 20, 2019

Harold Ellis joined the NHS as a junior doctor in July 1948, the very same month the UK's health service was created.

The 93-year-old has just brought out a new book bringing to life significant medical moments from throughout history and his 7 decades in practice.

'Tales of the Operating Theatre and other essays' is based on a collection of Prof Ellis' previously written journal papers.

From Horatio Nelson’s famous amputation through to the introduction of anaesthesia and Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, the book also comprises a first-hand account of some of the most remarkable achievements in medical history.

Distinguished Medical Career

Professor Ellis, who was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to surgery in 1987, first qualified in medicine at the University of Oxford in 1948.

He spent 2 years training as a house surgeon in Oxford then went on to practice as a graded surgical specialist in the Royal Army Medical Corps until 1952.

Immersing himself in a surgical career on his return, he spent the next 8 years working as a senior registrar before founding the academic surgical unit at Westminster Medical School in 1960. He practised there as a professor of surgery until his retirement in 1989.

Refusing to let go of his dedication to the healthcare system, he took on the position of clinical anatomist at Kings College London in 1993 and remains in the position today.

Professor Ellis has written textbooks that are still used to train student doctors. He spoke to Medscape UK about his life and how medicine has changed since the NHS first came into being.


How did the new book come about?

For more than 20 years I've written a monthly article for the Journal of Perioperative Practice, [published by] the Association of Perioperative Practitioners . When I was a younger surgeon, they were called theatre nurses.

They came up with the idea for the book at the same time as I did. It all came together in just 3 months. So, if you ever want a book published get them to do it, they were marvellous.

I've written 25 books before including Clinical Anatomy , which is in its fourteenth edition. The main target readers of the new book I'd say are nurses, especially theatre nurses.  It's full of good stories, some of them are a bit bloodthirsty, but it's a jolly good read for anyone, if I say so myself!

You first qualified as the NHS was just starting, what was that like?

Yes, I qualified in 1948. I went on a fortnight's holiday came back to start my first job at the old Radcliffe Infirmary and while I was away on holiday it became the National Health Service. The amazing thing was nothing had happened. There weren't great big banners outside saying this is now the National Health Service. The nurses weren't walking round with badges saying 'I'm an NHS nurse'.

Of course, for the senior people it was revolutionary. The GPs under the old system owned their practice, when they retired, they sold their practice and that was their pension. Now they were very worried they were going to be employees of the state. The consultant staff were then called the honorary staff. They gave their services free to the hospital and they earned their money by private practice. They were even more worried but they were given more money and allowed to keep their private practices. Aneurin Bevan, I never met him, but he must have been a remarkable chap, you know his famous quote "I stuffed their mouths with gold." He basically said to the consultant staff how much money do you want?

You must have seen enormous changes in medicine during your career?

Absolutely. If I took a surgeon now into the Radcliffe Infirmary of July 1948 they'd be gobsmacked. It would be like taking me back to a Victorian hospital in the time of Lord Lister. There's nothing in theatres today that looks anything like what it was when I was a young doctor. You can't even recognise now who's a nurse and who's the ward maid as they all dress the same. In the early days you could identify them all from 100 yards off. You could tell what rank the nurses were by the hats they wore. If there was a junior nurse there, we didn't ask her as she's only just started, and we knew because she had a frilly hat on.

As far as medical advances go, I saw the first injections of streptomycin given for tuberculosis. TB was rampant.  We knew that a few of us medical students and nurses would be carted off to the TB hospital. It meant 2 or 3 years in the TB sanitorium. We weren't going to die of tuberculosis but by God we were going to miss years of our life.

Polio was also a dreadful disease; while I was a medical student there were two outbreaks of polio in the South Midlands. A pal of mine, a medical student the year ahead of me, died in the Radcliffe. When I was a student the one thing I was scared of was getting polio. Then the vaccine came in in the 50s. I think I was the first chap in the queue.

I teach anatomy at Guy's [in London] now and they took me up to see the da Vinci robotic machine. I would not be able to work that. The whole set up is different, the wards, even the patients are different. Patients' expectations are much higher. Patients never argued with you, it was always, 'Thank you very much doctor'.  Litigation is another big change. Forty years in practice and I never had a medico-legal case. If you talk to any consultant these days they will say they have a filing cabinet of outstanding complaints being dealt with.

People are living much longer lives now than they did when you first became a doctor, which is obviously good for people but it's expensive for the NHS isn't it?

Totally. The whole idea in the Beveridge Report , which founded the welfare state, was that as the population got healthier there'd be less demand on the health service. It suggested people would get better and the NHS would become cheaper, which was absolute nonsense. The burden on the state of the health service is enormous. As a house surgeon in 1948 my chief said that we shouldn't treat anyone over the age of 65. Now people come back and back to the NHS and people of 92 are having by-pass surgery. In my day they'd have been dead for 20 or 30 years. It's now become an enormous burden. We have got all these old age homes filled with people who in my time, let's be frank, would have died many years ago, but they are all being looked after by our income tax.

It's just going to get more and more expensive as everybody is going to need the health service. Some of the expenses are enormous and some of the drug costs are phenomenal.

Did you always want to be a surgeon?

Don't ask me why but as a kid in the East End of London I wanted to be a doctor. It was only when I went into a hospital that I found the surgical cases more interesting than the medical cases. With the medical cases they always seemed to die but many of the surgical cases went home much better than when they came in.

However, I was very worried about being a surgeon as I was very bad at carpentry at school. The carpentry teacher thought I was joking when I said I wanted to be a surgeon. He sent me up to the headmaster to be caned. I thought 'I can't go into surgery if I can't do carpentry'.

So, I thought 'I'm going to be a physician'. Unfortunately, on an introductory course at the hospital, I couldn't hear anything through my stethoscope. All of the other kids could, so I went to my surgical tutor and told him I was really worried about my future. I told him I'd wanted to be a surgeon but I couldn't do carpentry so that was why I had to be a physician and I was afraid I couldn't do that either. The tutor took a pin out of the lapel of his white coat and pulled out a bit of chewing gum that my pal had pushed in [the stethoscope] and all of a sudden I could hear everything! He also told me there was no correlation between surgery and carpentry, that they are completely different art forms, so then I thought thank God for that and became a surgeon!

Tales From the Operating Theatre and other essays' is available via orders@afpp.org.uk or call 01423 881300.


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