Professor George Romanes: Acclaimed medical scholar whose teaching abilities became legendary for two generations of students

 

George Romanes is etched into the fond memory of two generations of British doctors, his students in Edinburgh now dispersed over the UK and abroad. As a teacher he was superb, and a legend.

James Garden, Regius Professor of Clinical Surgery at the University of Edinburgh, told me he was an inspirational lecturer, a hands-on team leader in the dissection room and an active supporter of Garden and his contemporaries when they were young demonstrators in anatomy. Chris Haslett, Professor of Clinical Sciences at the Centre for Inflammation Research at the University, told me that Romanes' lectures, with their fantastic coloured anatomical designs on the blackboard were the highlight of his undergraduate teaching experience.

When I was an MP I approached Romanes in his capacity as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine about the case of a young medical student from West Lothian. He could not have gone to greater personal trouble, phoning me late at night to resolve the situation. One former student recalled to me Romanes' kindness in interrupting her during a pass/fail examination, so that as a nervous 18-year-old she had time to gather her thoughts and give a correct, unflustered answer. Yet the same Romanes was formidable with his senior colleagues, and even so assured a Vice-Chancellor as Michael Swann was careful how he handled him.

The son of an engineer, Romanes went to Edinburgh Academy and won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge. There he was taken under the wing of the Master, Canon CE Raven, progressing to a PhD and becoming a Demonstrator in Anatomy. In 1940 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps then returned briefly to Cambridge as a Beit Memorial Fellow in medical research.

His Edinburgh contemporary, Sir John Crofton (Independent obituary, 5 November 2009), Professor of Respiratory Medicine, told me that he and Romanes learned to be decisive on the battlefield, making life-and-death decisions as to who was lost and who could be saved. Romanes said he tried to inculcate a quality of breezy decisiveness into his students.

In 1946 he returned to his native city as a lecturer in neuroanatomy, his research enhanced by the experience of a Commonwealth Fellowship at Columbia University in New York, which led to what Garden called Romanes' "remarkable command of comparative anatomy". He would walk into a lecture theatre with no aids and a clean blackboard. He would proceed to paint with his coloured chalks a veritable 3D image of a particular part of the anatomy. For 30 years from 1954 he was what several of his students have recalled to me as an icon of undergraduate medical teaching.

Romanes' most important contribution to anatomy was perhaps not the flow of distinguished articles but his persistent updating of Cunningham's Manual of Practical Anatomy. He also brought a number of classic textbooks up to speed with the latest research, particularly in embryology and developmental anatomy.

A sense of his work can be given by some of his articles: "The spinal accessory nerve in the sheep", "Cell columns in the spinal cord of a human foetus of 14 weeks", "The development and significance of the cell columns in the ventral horn of the cervical and upper thoracic spinal cord of the rabbit", "The spinal cord in a case of genital absence in the right limb below the knee", "Some features of the spinal nervous system of the foetal whale"; and "Motor localisation and the effects of nerve injury on the ventral horn cells of the spinal cord".

If Romanes' performance in the venerable and historic old anatomy lecture hall were pure theatre, he also believed in and led teaching in the dissection room. In this he had a Conan Doyle-like admiration for his predecessor – and Sherlock Holmes' mentor – the legendary Dr Joseph Bell. In my contact with them as Rector of Edinburgh University (2003-06) several now senior members of the Medical Faculty told me of the debt they owed Romanes for his support for them as junior teachers and demonstrators, both financially and professionally, and his efforts to enable them to link their basic human anatomy with clinical practice in the city's Royal Infirmary. He was frequently asked by other British universities to give advice on the development of their medical schools.

Romanes mellowed somewhat. Alec Currie, the powerful Secretary of the University and Romanes' contemporary, described him to me as a "force for good – a kenspeckle and genial father figure at meetings of the Senate and Court." Currie recalled how he would grout his pipe, light up and make an authoritative comment which was almost always accepted as university policy.

Towards the end of his life Romanes recognised that the pendulum of medical education had swung away from the study of anatomy but sighed, "But for the better?, I wonder." Retiring to his beloved Loch Carron, he became no mean player on the curling rink, which involved endless calculations suited to his character.

Professor Gordon Findlater, Romanes' last appointment before he retired, told me that he visited Romanes at Loch Carron and was astonished to find that as a mid-nonogenarian he was building poly-tunnels for his exotic tropical plants and scaling his roof to adjust his television aerial.

TAM DALYELL

George John Romanes, anatomist: born Edinburgh 2 December 1916; CBE 1971; married 1945 Muriel Grace Adam (died 1992; four daughters); died Isle of Skye 9 April 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas