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Sir George Frederick Still

Born 1868-02-27
Died 1941

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English paediatrician, born February 27, 1868, Highbury, London; died 1941.

Biography of Sir George Frederick Still

George Frederic Still was England’s first professor of childhood medicine. He loved children, particularly little girls with long hair, but generally could not stand their mothers.

He was born in Highbury, a northern middle class suburb of London, on February 27, 1868. His father had been a Customs Inspector in Dublin, later at the Port of London. His mother Emma came from Cornwall and enjoyed some reputation for her knowledge of horses. His parents had met in Dublin, but all of their twelve children were born in London. Four of them died in infancy, one sister died at age 18, Frederic being the only surviving son. His sister Edith was educated in Oxford and became the first woman to be graduated at the prestigious University of Heidelberg.

His father died when Frederic was 17 years of age, causing a dramatic change in the family economical auspices. Frederic, however, had proved such gifts as a pupil of Merchant Taylors, that he received a scholarship enabling him to study at Caius College, Cambridge, where he received several awards and new scholarships.

At Caius College Still received a classical schooling of a kind almost unheard of today - what a loss! During his entire adult life his favourite diversion from a formidable work schedule, was reading the antique works in their original language. Besides Greek and Latin he was more or less fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. His choice of profession, however, was medicine, and his knowledge of the natural sciences were to exceed those of humanism. No previous member of the Still family had been physicians.

From Cambridge he qualified at a London teaching hospital, Guy’s, graduating in 1893. At Guy’s he worked as a House Physician for six months with James Frederic Goodhart (1845-1916), who had an interest in paediatrics with sessions at the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children, and had published in 1885 a paediatric textbook. With Still’s help, this was later to become famous for 40 years. Due to Goodhart’s recommendations, Still gained experience later at Shadwell’s Children’s Hospital and at the Waterloo Hospital for Women and Children.

In 1894 Still finally achieved a post as clinical assistant at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, then the premier children’s hospital in Great Britain. He was not yet allowed to supplement his meagre income with private practice, and this early period of his career were years of poverty and destitution. Often he was short of food, some times his living quarters were so cold that he had to keep warm by walking around. It has been described how he once attached the soles to his shoes by the laces - lacking the money for new soles.

In 1894 Still won the Murchison Scholarship of the Royal College of Physicians. That year he was also able to publish his first two papers, on pyrexia and diphteria antitoxin. In 1895 he moved to a children's’ hospital in Cambridge, where he became medical registrar and pathologist for four years at an annual sum of £20.

It was during this period in Cambridge that he compiled 22 cases, of which he personally examined 19, of children with a special form of progrediating arthritis. He published his results in his now almost classical paper “On a form of chronic joint disease in Children”, published in 1897. This was also the main theme of his 1896 M.D. thesis at Cambridge: A special form of joint disease met with in children. Thus he shares with Maurice Raynaud and Tooth the distinction of having an eponym named after an M.D. thesis.

In 1899 he was appointed physician of the diseases of children to King’s College Hospital, London, then at Strand, the first hospital with a medical school to establish a section for children. Already in 1906 he became the first professor of diseases of children at this hospital, the first chair of paediatrics in England.

In 1905 he collaborated with Sir James Goodhart, his previous chief, as editor of “Diseases of children”. In 1909 he published his own textbook “Common Diseases of Children” which was based on the series of lectures he gave at the Great Ormond Street and King’s College. This book was one of the most popular paediatric textbooks of its day. For Allbutt and Rolleston’s “The System of Medicine” he wrote an account of congenital hypertrophy of the pylorus. Although first described by Samuel Jones Gee (1839-1911) in 1888, it was Still’s descriptions and lectures which brought it to the attention of the English medical profession.

In 1919 he contributed to the Osler birthday volumes an article entitled “Some 17th century writings on diseases of children”. This work aroused his interest in medical history so that he gave a series of lectures on the topic and finally wrote a book entitled “A history of paediatrics”.

Still was a bachelor who lived for little else but his work, and even in his younger days displayed no interest in sporting activities or the social side of life, devoting himself entirely to medicine. As he grew older, he returned more to his early love of the classics and on the centenary of King’s College Medical School wrote a Latin verse entitled “Carmen Scholae Medicinae” which was set to music and sung during the commemoration. His lack of interest in the sporting sides of life in youth, however, was later compensated for by his enthusiasm for flyfishing. Among his less scientific literary production is a contribution to Journal of the Fly Fishers Club. He was very close to his mother, living with her until her death and taking her to church every Sunday.

He was given innumerable honours, and on his retirement in 1937 he was knighted for having been the personal physician to princesses Elisabeth and Margareth. He had been chairman of the National Society for the Prevention of Infant Mortality for 20 years. When he retired from King’s College Hospital in 1933 he had been active there as a physician for 34 years. In 1933 he was president of The First International Paediatric Congress in London. He was elected one of the first honorary members of the American Pediatric Society in 1903.

He was succeeded by Wilfrid Sheldon (born 1901).

Still’s only political effort was to see that cod liver oil was available at low cost for those who needed it.

Still was an extremely good-looking man, although somewhat slight of build, and of a retiring but courteous manner. His retirement, however, vanished the very moment he started his round with the children of his ward. R. Collis, his colleague, writes:

“When he entered the ward he suddenly changed; he lightened up, his gait brisker, with a twinkle in his eyes he waved his arms at the children standing in their beds and waving back.” Collis has also described a night visit witnessing an unusual engagement in the patients:

“When the surgeon had left the ward Still remained for a while. He went from bed to bed talking to the children who had awakened. I watched his face: all his reserve had vanished, his face happily smiling. After midnight he left, but when entering the elevator he heard a child cry and went back. He stood at the child’s bed, worried, and tried to find a remedy for agonies. Eventually he was on his way. When I walked with him to his car he spoke to me as if I were a mate in the military, almost like to a friend. The following day he was once more veiled in impenetrable reserve.”

His love of children was reciprocated. Still might examine the children, subjecting them to severe treatments without protests. His favourite darlings were little girls with long hair, a weakness that was no secret to his colleagues. Once, when he left a hospital, his farewell present was a long haired girl doll. Their mothers, however, were not high in his esteem. His sister in law once said: “He loved children, but with the exception of his own mother and the Queen, I never heard him utter a favourable word on mothers in general.” Another relative tells of Still in his car. When prosperity came to him, Still had a driver and always was driving slowly with the car’s curtains drawn, as he hated both speed and traffic.

His waiting room in an old house in Queen Anne Street had a great number of toys to help amuse the young people waiting their turn to see him. He was probably one of the most popular paediatricians in London, so that almost every sick child of well-to-do parents had seen him at one time or another.

After retirement Still moved to Salisbury, capitol of Rhodesia. Here he cultivated his passion for flyfishing and taught English language and literature at the Salisbury cathedral school. He also wrote poetry, and the year he died, 1941, he published a volume of poems titled “Childhood and other poems”. These verses from this collection prove the importance of children to him, sick or healthy:

    For my garden is the garden of children
    Cometh naught there but golden hours,
    for the children are its joy and its sunshine,
    and they are its heaven sent flowers.

    He wrote this poem in commemoration of his mother:

      Years have gone since that sweet presence
      And her ”boy” is old and grey,
      But I hear my mother calling,
      I am yet a child at play,
      And my Mother has my heart-love,
      And it seems but yesterday.

    We thank Simon Hardy for correcting an error.

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