Obituary: Wilfred Sircus, Edinburgh gastroenterologist renowned in his field

Bill Sircus in his Western General Hospital GI Unit Caravan - October 1982
Bill Sircus in his Western General Hospital GI Unit Caravan - October 1982
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Wilfred Sircus, physician. Born 26 November, 1919, in Liverpool, Lancashire. Died: 12 August 2018 in Cupar, Bow of Fife, aged 98.

Bill Sircus was born, the son of Jewish immigrants in Liverpool, where he went to school and embarked on medical studies at Liverpool University. At the start of the Second World War he enlisted, as a private in the RAMC. When the Army realised that he had been a medical ­student, he resumed studies on a shortened course graduating MB ChB with distinction. He rejoined the Army and served in Italy and Austria.

Bill returned to Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool, before moving to Sheffield in 1953. He was recruited as a gastroenterologist at the Western General Hospital and the University of Edinburgh and remained there for the remainder of his professional career, in the forefront of extremely significant changes to the practice of gastroenterology.

The GI Unit at the Western was the first specialised unit in the UK, singular in that ­surgeons and physicians, radiologists and pathologists worked in collaboration. The unit, when Bill arrived was run by Wilfred Card and John Bruce. He was initially a gastrointestinal physiologist, studying the control mechanisms of acid secretion and motility. When Card and Bruce retired, Bill continued and expanded the unit’s clinical work. The most radical change was the introduction of endoscopy, in which Bill became skilled in diagnosis and intervention. He was ahead of his time in his emphasis on evidence based medicine, a rewarding, though exacting, discipline.

He, along with colleagues published a number of significant papers, reviews and chapters in leading journals and books, which helped define the future of many aspects of gastroenterology. He was particularly attentive to psychosocial problems, working closely with psychiatrists, especially Professor Henry Walton. He was kind and readily communicated with patients and nursing staff. Despite his specialisation he remained a first class general physician, valued by colleagues and general practitioners. The work of a consultant of Bill’s era was enabled by a personal secretary, as his was by Mary Wilson.

He was a brilliant teacher, both at the bedside and endoscopy at all career stages, and a mentor to a whole generation of clinicians, both British and many other nationalities. His influence extended over many international fields. He had visiting professorships in the Universities of Ohio, Alabama, Cape Town and Sydney. He gave Medical Research Council lecture tours in India, Israel, Canada, Egypt, China, USA, Malaysia, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Japan.

A major administrative achievement was the expansion of laboratory and office facilities. The Western General Hospital from 1950 to 1970 slowly evolved from a Poor Law hospital to a top class, modern, clinical and academic establishment.

Initially, his office was in an eyrie, far away from the ward, until he acquired a caravan, close to the GI Unit in D block. He then persuaded the Wolfson Foundation to fund the building of a laboratory suite, which along with new ­consultant, scientist and ­nursing staff produced valuable research projects, scientific papers, training and teaching. There followed a prefabricated office block, to which Bill and other staff transferred.

He also received innumerable honours, awards, prizes and distinctions.

After retiring, Bill, with Reg Passmore, edited the Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians. They formed a very successful, rigorous but creative writing and editorial team. He was a Fellow of both the Edinburgh and London Royal Colleges of Physicians, Senior Fellow of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland, president of the British Society of Gastroenterology, president of the British Society of Digestive Endoscopy, vice-president of the European Society of Endoscopy and president of the World Organisation of Endoscopy 1983-86.

Bill had a strong artistic side, both creative and appreciative and was a talented artist. In the days before endoscopic ­cameras he made beautiful drawings of what he had viewed down the endoscope

Throughout his life he valued his Jewish heritage, attending various literature and other study groups. He enjoyed poetry, particularly the poetry of the 13th century Persian, Rumi. He was widely read in modern and classical literature. His familiarity with the sounds and meaning of words was the basis of his elegant writing style. This ­precision was a challenge to any potential co-author.

After retirement, amongst other activities, he enjoyed golf, swimming, watching sport, especially rugby, ­gardening and attending meetings of the Senior Fellows of the Edinburgh Royal College of Physicians.

In 1946 he met and married Mill, a Norwegian nurse. Mill and he had three dearly loved children, eight grandchildren, six boys and two girls and five great grandchildren. Some time after the death of Mill, Bill married Maggie. The last 20 years of his life were spent happily, with his soul mate, Anna Caplan, by whom he is survived.

Bill loved and was fulfilled by his medical career and retired with reluctance. He was a man of integrity; open minded, open hearted and loved by many.

His GP called him “a living legend”. His grandchildren liked the phrase ‘a beautiful and accomplished life’. The complete physician and fine human being.

Martin Eastwood