Rodney Saville Sneath

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 07 July 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:112

A pioneer in limb salvage surgery for patients with bone tumours

When Rodney Sneath, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, was faced in 1970 with a patient refusing what was then the only surgical option of amputation for a bone tumour, he embarked on his first custom made endoprosthetic replacement—for the upper part of the femur. He soon began to attract other patients with tumours, and his innovative skills allowed him to develop operations to replace and reconstruct parts of the femur, tibia, humerus, radius, and pelvis. Rodney took immense care, not only in removing the tumour but also in reconstructing the limb, and his attention extended even to the placement of dressings and postoperative care. He was a master surgeon who would boldly tackle tumours that many others considered unresectable. His experience of endoprosthetic replacements was unparalleled.

Rodney's inquiring and innovative mind led to many developments in endoprostheses. In this he worked closely with John Scales, professor of bioengineering at Stanmore (obituary BMJ 2004;328: 714). Together, and with others, they developed a diverse range of highly successful implants. Rodney's greatest contribution was in the development and use of extendable prostheses for children, the first of which was inserted in 1976. He also pioneered the use of pelvic endoprostheses, using the excised tumour as a template for the design of the metal replacement, which was inserted at a second stage, some six weeks later.

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His reputation extended both nationally and internationally, and in 1986 the Department of Health formally recognised his skills by granting supra-regional funding to what became known as the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital oncology service. This unit soon became one of the leading centres in the world for musculoskeletal oncology. But it did not happen without a fight. Faced with a hospital administration that was not sympathetic to the fledgling unit's aspirations, Rodney suggested that he should go to the press and let the public be the judge—the administration backed down.

In 1992 it became apparent that the pathology service provided to the bone tumour service was in need of development. Despite requests by Rodney, no improvements were made. Following some diagnostic errors the unit set up an inquiry, which attracted worldwide adverse publicity. The unit management appeared to want to close the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, but a further review by the Royal College of Surgeons established that the service was safe and effective.

Rodney Saville Sneath was born and grew up in Yorkshire. He read medicine at Sheffield, where he enjoyed participating in rugby, rock climbing, and gliding, once having to land his glider on Cheltenham race course. Motor sport was also an important part of his life, and he competed, with his father and a friend, in the Monte Carlo rally in 1952, finishing first out of the privateers in a Sunbeam Talbot.

During national service Rodney was stationed on Salisbury plain with the Royal Army Medical Corps. While with the army in Austria he developed a love of skiing, and he was one of the early members of the British Orthopaedic Study Group, which met in the Austrian Alps. He continued to attend the group until his 70s, often driving there in his five litre V8 TVR.

After national service, he became an anatomy demonstrator, and published on the insertion of the biceps femoris muscle, which gained him a reference in Gray's Anatomy. Further surgical training took him to St George's Hospital, London, and later to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, and Great Ormond Street Hospital, London.

Rodney retired at the age of 68, but continued to work in the private sector for a time. He spent his last 10 years working on his garden with his wife, Ann.

Rodney presented 16 invited lectures. He was awarded a Hunterian professorship in 1993, and his Hunterian oration was entitled “The treatment of malignant bone tumours in children.” He was a founder member of the European Musculoskeletal Oncology Society (EMSOS) and the British Orthopaedic Oncology Society (BOOS), but enjoyed far more than these honours the pleasure of skiing with his colleagues annually in Zurs at the British Orthopaedic Study Group or simply driving his TVR.

He leaves Ann, five children, and six grandchildren.

Rodney Saville Sneath, consultant orthopaedic surgeon the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Birmingham, 1965-1993 (b 1925; q Sheffield 1948; FRCS 1958), d 1 April 2005.

[Robert Sneath]

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