Professor Ronald Hinchcliffe
Saturday 29 January 2011
Millions of people in the UK suffer from hearing loss or dizziness and balance disorders.
The medical services that support them owe much to Ronald Hinchcliffe. Beginning in the 1950s, when the prevalence and causes of these disorders were poorly understood, Hinchcliffe undertook scientific investigations that laid the foundations of audiovestibular (hearing and balance) medicine today.
The problem of excessive noise was recognised by the postwar RAF and Hinchcliffe headed their Acoustics Laboratory under Air Commander Dickson, developing ear protection and monitoring methods in common use today. Hinchcliffe went on to work alongside auditory-science pioneers von Bekesy, Stevens and Zwislocki at the Psychoacoustical Laboratory Harvard. At the Medical Research Council's Wernher Research Unit at King's College Hospital under TS Littler, Hinchcliffe conducted important studies in South Wales and south-east Scotland. By 1960 he had demonstrated the prevalence of high-frequency hearing loss in men exposed to noise at work. In Jamaica, Nigeria and Ghana Hinchcliffe identified other patterns and causes of deafness, such as eating cassava. He concluded that deafness is not the inevitable result of age but has avoidable causes.
Hinchcliffe's scientific evidence was crucial to Justice Mustill's 1984 landmark ruling that after 1963 employers had no excuse for failing to protect the hearing of their employees. This paved the way for 'Noise at Work Regulation' which from 1990 helped protect the hearing of industrial workers. These regulations continue to be strengthened by EU directives.
Hinchcliffe was key to the formation of the British Society of Audiology in 1967, and was founder of the British and International Associations of Audiological Physicians. He was Secretary General of the International Society of Audiology for many years, and was honoured by ENT societies in Japan, China Thailand and elsewhere. With Ian Taylor, Hinchcliffe successfully campaigned for a new medical specialty in the UK, Audiological Medicine, and in 1977 he became the UK's first Professor of Audiological Medicine.
As a committed clinician and academic at London's Institute of Laryngology and Otology for over 25 years, Hinchcliffe pioneered new techniques to diagnose hearing and balance disorders and he identified the psychological aspects of Menière's disease and tinnitus.
A rare combination of uncompromising scientist and perceptive clinician, Hinchcliffe had a fertile legalistic mind. While he vigorously challenged opinions and decisions not based on hard evidence, he gave his time and knowledge generously to anyone asking for help. He leaves a unique legacy of doctors and scientists around the globe who he inspired, trained, and supported. All of them will miss him.
Ronald Hinchcliffe, audiovestibular physician and academic: born Bolton 20 February 1926; died Hitchin 5 January 2011.
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