Dr Frank Ellis

Energetic and long-lived idealist who pioneered cancer radiotherapy
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The Independent Online

Frank Ellis, radiation oncologist: born Sheffield 22 August 1905; head of radiotherapy, Weston Park Hospital, Sheffield 1930-43, Royal London Hospital 1943-50, Churchill Hospital, Oxford 1950-70; President, British Institute of Radiology 1962-63; OBE 2000; married 1932 Dorothy Parr (died 1990; two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Oxford 3 February 2006.

Frank Ellis was Britain's most eminent radiation oncologist. Energetic, enthusiastic, creative and compassionate, he was a wonderful man who built up clinical departments, from scratch or almost from scratch, in Sheffield, London and Oxford. In a 60-year career he became a world leader in cancer radiotherapy.

His ideas led to improvements for patients that still form the basis of modern practice. He developed the concept of the nominal standard dose, which allows comparison of different dosage regimens in different centres, and enables international treatment comparisons for research purposes. He was noted for his kindness, integrity, generosity and humour. His name is commemorated in an annual lecture and a medal awarded by the Royal College of Radiologists, and he was appointed OBE in 2000 for services to radiotherapy.

His career was spent finding the best way of delivering a sufficient radiation dose to kill all the cells of a malignant tumour, while sparing the surrounding tissues as far as possible. He also did research to establish which patients would most benefit from treatment, working closely with experts in other branches of medicine. He regarded every patient as a new challenge for improving on his treatments, while some colleagues preferred standard protocols. His idealism inspired his students and trainees.

He described radiotherapy in a mathematical way so that it could be tested. He developed a formula, now called the Ellis formula, to equate different radiotherapy regimens. Every patient's course of radiotherapy has to be divided into daily doses, called fractions, so that normal tissues around the tumour have time to recover between doses. He developed formulae for finding the most desirable number of fractions, and for comparing different fractionation. He answered the question, if we change the number of fractions, how can we equate their efficiency? His methods, developed in the 1960s, were not superseded for 20 years and were essential when comparing different treatment regimens for research purposes.

Ellis was a hands-on person as well as a theorist. In 1935, in Sheffield, he developed wedge-shaped filters made of wood to deflect a radiation beam to avoid sensitive organs such as the eye. This revolutionised treatment and is still a basic component of modern radiotherapy. He later invented other devices to improve the accuracy and uniformity of the dose. During the Second World War, he was concerned that, if the hospital were bombed, it would interfere with his patients' treatment and would risk radioactive contamination, so he hired a furniture van and moved his department, radium included, to a safer place.

He established radiotherapy departments in three hospitals, the future Weston Park in Sheffield, the Royal London, and the Churchill in Oxford, and trained a huge number of the next generation of radiotherapists; 11 of his former trainees are now professors.

In his first senior post, as radium officer at the Sheffield Radium Institute in 1931, he had to lobby the board of governors for facilities. He obtained a stock of radium, and he got his fellow chapel-goer John Graves, a sometime mayor of the town, to finance £100,000-worth of X-ray equipment. Here he started the now-standard procedure of doing needles biopsies to identify the type of tumour before starting radium treatment. His 12 years in Sheffield saw new sophistication introduced into radiotherapy. By the time he left, Weston Park Hospital, as it became, was treating 1,500 new patients a year, 100 per day, and was a recognised medical training centre.

He took charge of the radiotherapy department at Oxford in 1950, in a department housed in US Air Force huts. He supervised the construction of the first telecobalt radiotherapy unit, a state-of-the-art device that moved both vertically and horizontally despite its enormous weight. He was aided in this by his schoolfriend Tommy Husband, the designer of Jodrell Bank Observatory. The equipment remained in service for 25 years and was then given to the Science Museum in London.

Frank Ellis was born in Sheffield in 1905, the son of a brass finisher. He wanted to be a doctor from the age of five. At Nether Green School his teacher, Miss Raby, recognised his ability and her encouragement and teaching enabled him to get a scholarship, worth £5 a year, to King Edward VII Grammar School, where he excelled academically and at sport. He could not afford to go to Oxford but won a scholarship to Sheffield University medical school. Here he was known as Tiger for his drive, energy, and knack for inspiring others. When he graduated - with honours and winning prizes - he presented a bouquet to Miss Raby.

After a brief spell in clinical biochemistry, he was hospitalised with a serious eye infection that made him sensitive to light and prevented his taking up an appointment in Southern Rhodesia. Instead, he applied for and got the job at the Sheffield Radium Institute. He spent the preceding six months visiting radiotherapy centres in London, Belgium, Sweden and Germany.

Ellis retired from the NHS, of which he was a strong supporter, when he was 65 but was in demand around the world. He continued to lecture internationally and publish research and review papers, and served as visiting professor at the universities of Southern California and Wisconsin, the medical college of New Jersey, and the Sloane-Kettering Institute in New York.

Shortly after becoming a consultant at Sheffield, Ellis took up a £5 bet from a colleague and cycled to London in 24 hours. He never cashed the cheque as he knew the colleague could ill afford it. (Years later, as a visiting professor in New York, he was told he should put his medical qualifications on his office wall. Lacking the paperwork, he put up the £5 cheque instead.) He played squash, and beat his younger colleagues, most of his life. He did his Royal Canadian Air Force exercises every morning before breakfast.

He was active in the Society of Friends and the Oxford United Nations Association, in Amnesty International and Oxfam. He was a lifelong Christian and believed that progress and peace came through reasoned argument. In 2005, aged 99, he gave up being treasurer of the Oxford Consumer Association to make way for a younger man.

A past president of the British Institute of Radiology, the oldest society of its kind, Ellis was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Radiologists; he was awarded the latter's gold medal in 1987.

He was widowed in 1990 but remained in good health and lived independently until he was 100, moving into a care home only three weeks before his death. His intellect remained sharp, and he could still win at Scrabble to the end.

Caroline Richmond

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