Dame Sheila Sherlock

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 19 January 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:174

World authority on the liver and professor of medicine, Royal Free Hospital, London

For decades Sheila Sherlock was the world's foremost hepatologist, an audacious thing for a woman to be, especially in the 1950s. She was a small, plump bundle of energy and her clinical, research, teaching, editorial, and written output was phenomenal. She was the first woman to be appointed professor of medicine in the United Kingdom and she was the Royal College of Physicians' first woman vice president. She wrote the first textbook on the subject, Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System, in 1954; it has been translated into at least six other languages, and the 11th edition, co-authored with James Dooley, came out a fortnight before her death.

Little was known about liver disease when she began her career. Her clinical research, innovation, and teaching led to improved diagnosis and treatment and helped establish and develop hepatology. She introduced needle biopsies, replacing laparoscopy and aiding diagnosis in patients too ill to undergo general anaesthetics. Jaundice was common in allied troops, and the biopsy material shed light on its causes. In 1966 she helped create what is now a standard test in diagnosing primary biliary cirrhosis, later showing that it was an autoimmune condition.

From Folkestone Grammar School she went to Edinburgh University, graduating top of the class in 1941. She was appointed lecturer and honorary consultant physician at the Hammersmith Hospital and Postgraduate Medical School when she was still only 30. By the time she was 35 she and her liver unit were famous.

She became an FRCP in 1951, aged 33, by far the youngest woman to be elected. In 1982 she was narrowly defeated for the college presidency, when, it is said, a gang of fellows in Birmingham chartered a charabanc to vote in person for her rival, Bill (later Sir Raymond) Hoffenberg.

In 1959 she moved—like a tornado, according to Sir Roy Calne—to the Royal Free Hospital and medical school. Doctors came from all over the world to learn from her, and at one time all of the world's liver doctors had been through her unit. She did a weekly ward round for them, treating them like small children, and they took it like lambs.

She was a mother hen to those working under her and in her department, and did all she could to teach them and advance their careers, pushing them out of the nest when she felt they were ready. One of her protégés was Ellis Samols, who brought radioimmunoassay to Britain. Once, on a US trip, she met someone who hadn't heard of her but knew Ellis, and asked her if she worked in his lab. Instantly, Ellis was deemed ready to spread his wings and fly.

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She has reduced male junior doctors to tears, and she could tear up a third and fourth draft of a research paper while enumerating her criticisms. Dr Alex Paton, who worked under her, recalls the interview: “Are you prepared to push patients in a bed to the laboratory? You are? The job is yours.” Many years later when he was working for the BMJ, she received a copy of his critique of a paper she had submitted. As expected, she gave him a rocket. Criticism was a one way process. Despite all this he and numerous others held her in terrific affection.

If she was maternal to her staff, she was paternalistic to her patients. She knew what was best for them and would tell them what she thought and what she was going to do. There was little place for good taste or patients' feelings.

In the 1950s and 1960s consent to research on patients was rarely questioned or discussed. Doctors on Sheila's team might go, quaking, to a patient with pneumonia, and perform a procedure; but most patients adored her and would submit to almost anything. Then, Dr Maurice Papworth questioned the way patients were being experimented on in a magazine called Twentieth Century, following this up in his 1969 book Human Guinea Pigs. Sheila was a prime target, the storm raged for some time, and she never forgave Maurice.

In 1990, when the Scientist magazine published a list of the world's 10 most cited women scientists of the previous decade, she was among them. She received awards and honours too numerous to list.

Sheila let her hair down at parties. She loved sport. She played tennis competitively, could name the Kent County Cricket Club's team, understood Rugby football, and was an Arsenal supporter. She was happily married to Geraint James, a physician, who outlives her, for 50 years. They had two daughters, the younger of whom, Auriole, a Baptist minister, conducted her funeral with memorable sensitivity and flair. Her health declined in her last year of life, but those close to her are reticent about her cause of death.

Dame Sheila Patricia Violet Sherlock, hepatologist and professor of medicine, Royal Free Hospital, London; b Dublin 1918; q Edinburgh 1941; MD, FRCP, FRCP Ed, FRS; d 30 December 2001.

[Caroline Richmond]

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