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James Frederick Brailsford

Born 1888
Died 1961

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British radiologist, 1888-1961.

Biography of James Frederick Brailsford

James Frederick Brailsford was working as an accountant/clerc when his interest in photography made him apply for a job as a photographer in the pathology and bacteriology department in Birmingham University.

It was here that the then medical officer of health for Birmingham, Dr. (later Sir) John Robertson employed him to photograph specimens he had obtained from animals with tuberculosis. As Brailsford says, «photography was the means by which I secured the greatest friend of my life." He was appointed special investigator to the medical officer of health, and with Robertson studied the terrible conditions of the slums where tuberculosis had an incidence four times greater than in the better suburbs and helped Robertson in his campaign against the disease.

Brailsford was unable to afford a higher education but achieved advancement through his diligence and perseverance at technical schools and evening classes. W. A. Cadbury was the chairman of Birmingham Public Health Committee and learning Brailsford’s desire to do medicine, subsidised him so that he could take a medical course.

The 1st World War, however, commenced, and Brailsford served as a radiographer in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was mentioned in dispatches. After demobilisation he entered Birmingham Medical School, where he qualified in 1923 at the age of 35 years.

Brailsford was soon appointed as radiologist to the Queen’s Hospital and St. Chad’s Hospital, Birmingham, and rapidly established a fine reputation. He pursued a career in academic radiology in his university hospital group, obtaining his doctorate in 1936 and being elevated to fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1941. His major interest was the radiology of the skeleton and his monograph, The Radiology of Bones and Joints published in 1934, went into several editions. He gained an international reputation and was the recipient of numerous honours and awards.

Brailsford had a superb collection of plant and bird life photographs and was the first president of the British Association of Radiologists. His very strength of individualist activity and uncompromising approach also led him at times to misjudgements.

Never slow to put his views to both speech and paper, Brailsford was an outspoken dogmatist with a penchant for confrontation. These characteristics enlivened many a radiological meeting. He usually won arguments with his colleagues, but eventually his reputation was harmed by his bitter opposition to the use of deep X-ray therapy for example, and his unfounded condemnation of mass radiography, as well as the development of thoracic surgery, saying in one of his last articles that a radiograph that led to an operation was a bad radiograph.

Brailsford was held in awe by his juniors and regarded with circumspection by his peers. Nevertheless he was universally respected for his honesty and integrity. Behind his cantankerous exterior Brailsford was a modest, kindly man with a generous nature and his loyalty to his staff was repaid by their deep affections.

Brailsford was elected a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1941. In 1953 he retired to a rural cottage in north Wales but this phase of his life was marred by the death of his wife. He developed a painful and protracted illness which mellowed his personality and he went to considerable lengths to make peace with his erstwhile antagonists prior to his death in 1961 at the age of 73 years.

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