Obituary: Professor R. J. Last
Thursday 14 January 1993
R. J. LAST was one of the outstanding teachers of postgraduate anatomy in Britain. He was one of a small number of anatomists who had first been practising surgeons and who was sufficiently impressed by the importance of the subject to make a career in it.
After practising in Adelaide, where he was born (though he made a point of describing himself as English), much of Ray Last's war-time service was spent in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), where he became surgeon to the Emperor Haile Selassie and his family. After the war he determined to come to London and become an anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons, and he did just that.
The Professor of Anatomy at that time was Frederic Wood Jones, who had been Last's teacher as an undergraduate in Adelaide, and Last's interest in human and comparative anatomy had been stimulated by his early association with that great anatomist. After a few years as anatomy demonstrator and curator he was made Professor of Applied Anatomy in 1950.
For most of his time at the College, Last was the first Warden of the Nuffield College of Surgical Sciences, the new postwar residence for college students, many of whom came from overseas, and on his retirement one of the common rooms was named the Raymond Jack Last Room, in honour of one who always had the students' interests at heart.
His book Anatomy Regional and Applied, first published in 1954 and now in its eighth edition, was the first of a new generation of anatomy texts that provided a shorter but highly acceptable alternative to the larger and long-established academic works such as Gray and Cunningham. It set a new standard for readability and interest, for it concentrated on anatomy as a medical and surgical subject that mattered in practice, and not just one that had to be memorised as an academic exercise. It rapidly became a standard text for surgical trainees. It was largely illustrated by his own drawings, and he was gratified that only last year the Medical Artists Association recognised his expertise by making him an honorary fellow. He also edited an edition of Wolff's Anatomy of the Eye and Orbit (as an undergraduate he had won a prize in ophthalmology) and Aids to Anatomy.
Last had little interest in the cellular and molecular aspects of the subject which occupied so much of the time of many in anatomy departments, though he made important contributions to gross anatomy, especially that of the knee joint.
On retiring from the College in 1970 he went to live in Malta but spent several months of the year as Visiting Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught the freshmen, opening the dissecting room seven days a week and always being there for teaching and discussion. Only failing eyesight led to his eventual retirement.
Both in things anatomical and non-anatomical he had strong views on what he thought was correct and what was not; things were black or white and there were no intermediate shades. He had a good voice for lecturing, and students appreciated his dogmatic style. He did not always see eye to eye with the college authorities, and could be, to use his own words, 'as touchy and all-knowing as the typical Australian is'. But the interests of his students were always his first priority, and this endeared them to him. Many thousands of surgeons now in practice in many parts of the world, especially in India, Pakistan, Egypt and Australia, owe their understanding of anatomy to Last, and in travels round the world he delighted in renewing his acquaintance with many of them - and they delighted in entertaining him. On retirement he received, apart from a painting of the College, a commemorative book with letters from many contributors, and an inscription: 'This presentation to our professor is a token of the high esteem and affection in which we, his former residents and students, hold him; it represents our indebtedness to him for his unstinting help and encouragement; it expresses our appreciation of his unwavering devotion to our welfare; it records our gratitude for the hospitality he and his wife showed us.' They will be sad at never seeing again a teacher who had such an important influence on their careers and whom they remember with both gratitude and affection.
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