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In Memoriam: Professor Michael Atkinson

Updated on: 07 Jul 2021   First published on 06 Jul 2021

The BSG are saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Michael Atkinson on 8th April 2021 at the age of 96.

Prof. Atkinson was proud of his Leeds origins where his father was a plumber’s merchant, though he went from Airebrough Grammar School to University College Hospital London for his medical education.  WW2 necessitated evacuation from London on occasions, but he graduated with the Fellowes Gold Medal in 1946 and became house-physician to the professor, Harold Himsworth, (also a Yorkshireman) and Max Rosenheim.  Michael was  influenced by another UCH physician Thomas Lewis who coined the term “clinical research” and who founded the Medical Research Society. He had a post at St. James’s Hospital, Leeds where he met Iris; they married in 1951.

Michael remained an active researcher throughout his clinical career. When a registrar with John Hawksley, he began to use semi-flexible endoscopes, furthering his skills with Francis Avery Jones at the Hammersmith Hospital where he worked for Sheila Sherlock. She helped him find a post with Walter Palmer in Chicago whence he moved to Franz Inglefinger in Boston investigating intestinal motility.  He developed the techniques with Tom Rowlands and David Edwards at UCH, demonstrating the importance of the invisible but vital lower oesophageal sphincter.

In 1957, he went as lecturer to Leeds where, with Geoffrey Watkinson and Geoffrey Chandler, they drove research into gut disorders forward.  He studied liver disease with his research fellow Monty Losowsky (who later became professor at St. James Hospital). In 1962, he became a consultant in Worcester where his enthusiasm for clinical research and post-graduate education continued. He was instrumental in founding the Charles Hastings Post graduate medical centre there.

Despite his single-minded enthusiasm, opportunities for clinical research at a small district hospital were limited, and in 1973 he went to Nottingham where he became a physician, and within a year became Special Professor of Gastroenterology. The space, resources, and young associates enabled him to expand his work.  The “hand-made” tradition of Thomas Lewis found fruit when he devised the Atkinson tube and its introducer as a means of palliating the obstruction to swallowing caused by oesophageal cancers.

He was always an enthusiastic supporter of the BSG and many think he should have been made President, but his modest diffidence and the personal antipathy of one senior member of the (then) Nominations Committee prevented it, but he was President of the British Society of Digestive Endoscopy and of the Midland Gastroenterology Society.

He was always a keen walker in the Yorkshire dales and the Lake District, so upon retirement he and Iris (an anaesthetist), created a new life in Witherslack, Cumbria, including mountain-biking as well as walking.  He made a lovely garden but his active mind turned to local history.  He took a history degree at Lancaster University, and went on to a Masters.  He was a keen member of the Grange local history society, becoming its president.

He had a wonderfully retentive memory [he could remember almost every young doctor who had worked for him, and their current post] so it was especially poignant that he developed Alzheimer’s dementia when he was approaching 90.  Iris had died in 2011, but he had support from his four daughters until his recent death.

Authors: Dr John Bennett and Dr Peter Toghill.

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