Sir Robert Shields: Surgeon-administrator knighted for service to healthcare in Liverpool

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The Independent Online

Robert Shields was a great surgeon-administrator who turned a demoralised academic department into a world-famous one. He spent 27 years as head of the surgery department at Liverpool University – including three years as Dean – leading a team that greatly improved the quality and scope of surgery in the city. He attracted the extra funding required for new professorships in general practice and public health and formed close links with local hospitals. He also carried out and supervised research on physiology, especially the abnormal physiology of gastrointestinal diseases.

Bob Shields, an engineer's son, was educated at the John Neilson Institution in Paisley. He was inspired to choose medicine by his family doctor, who was also the local surgeon and who treated his mother when she broke her ankle so badly that the bone protruded. As a student in Glasgow, Shields was a high-flier and by the time he qualified he had won a distinction, two prizes and a medal for, respectively, surgery, pathology and diseases of the nose and throat.

He spent his pre-registration year as houseman at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow, before doing his National Service in the Army, attached to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, in 1954-56. During this period, in Berlin, he met Marianne Swinburn, a nurse whom he married in 1957. After his service he remained in the Territorial Army for five years.

Shields spent a year as research fellow in Glasgow under Professor Charles Illingworth, and a year at the Mayo Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio, studying intestinal absorption. This was the basis of his 1965 MD, which won Glasgow University's Bellahouston Gold Medal. He moved to Cardiff in 1963 as senior lecturer at the Welsh National School of Medicine, and consultant surgeon. In 1969 he was promoted to reader in surgery, but accepted the chair of surgery at Liverpool. He stayed until he retired in 1996.

Here, Shields nurtured the staff's academic potential. He built up the department into a regional centre for breast and intestinal cancer, and for liver disease. He developed clinical and research links with medical gastroenterology and intensive care. The department was famed for its treatment of portal hypertension, especially oesophageal bleeding. In the first-ever research selectivity exercise of the higher-education funding councils, the department was one of only two in the UK awarded an international-level star-rating. He promoted transplantation, establishing a senior lectureship, and a purpose-built transplant unit was opened in Liverpool in 1973.

Shields was knighted in 1990; three members of his department were also knighted, and 12 were appointed professor of surgery elsewhere. He was a good listener and had a talent for integrating other people's ideas. He spent three years as Dean of Medicine and served on a number of committees. These included the Liverpool Health Authority (1974-78), Mersey Regional Health Authority (1982-85), and Royal Liverpool Hospital Trust (1992-95). He was also a member of the Medical Research Council (1982-94).

He was an examiner for the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and council member and regent of the Edinburgh college. In 1993 he was the first Glasgow graduate elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in its 500-year history.

He belonged to many professional organisations and was president of the British Society for Gastroenterology and the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland. He was an examiner in surgery for a dozen universities in Britain and abroad. He was on the editorial boards of several journals, including the British Journal of Surgery. Tall and distinguished-looking, Shields was a fair-minded, quiet and private man of cast-iron integrity.

In his spare time he walked in the Highlands and sailed around the Western Isles and South Coast of England. When his children were young, he took them dinghy-sailing. When he retired, he continued as a government advisor, mainly on health service restructuring for the Scottish Office, and he enrolled as an undergraduate student of German and 20th-century history.

Caroline Richmond

Robert Shields, surgeon: born Paisley, Renfrewshire 8 May 1930; Senior Lecturer, then Reader in Surgery, Welsh National School of Medicine 1963-69; Professor of Surgery, Liverpool University 1969-93, Dean of Medicine 1982–85; Consultant Surgeon, Royal Liverpool Hospital and Broadgreen Hospital 1969-96; Kt 1990; President, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh 1994-97; married 1957 Marianne Swinburn (one son, two daughters); died Liverpool 3 October 2008.

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