Professor Sir Robert Shields: Academic and surgeon

Born : 8 November, 1930, in Paisley. Died: 3 October, 2008, in Liverpool, aged 77.

THE school of surgery founded in Glasgow by Sir Charles Illingworth came to dominate academic surgery in Britain for a generation or more. Sir Charles's pupils occupied more than 20 chairs of surgery in this country and abroad, and played an important role in shaping the mould of surgical research and teaching.

Robert Shields was as influential and as distinguished as any of this remarkable cohort. His attention to detail, willingness to listen and unfailing charm and courtesy were skills he used to great effect, whether as administrator, chairman or president. Always immaculate and always ready with a disarming smile, he was a natural diplomat with a reputation for wisdom, honesty and integrity.

From school at the John Neilson Institution in Paisley, the young Bob Shields went on to study medicine at Glasgow University, where he won the MacLeod medal in surgery and the Mary Ure prize in surgery. After graduation he took up house officer posts in the Western Infirmary Glasgow, and here began the mentorship under Sir Charles Illingworth which was to shape his professional life.

National Service as regimental medical officer with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders took him to Berlin. Returning there in 1994 for the Eurosurgery meeting as president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, he was able to look back on his earlier posting with affection, for it was here that he met Marianne Swinburne, then a nursing sister at the British Military Hospital, who he married in 1957.

Military service had other important influences on his character. He was always immaculately turned out and retained throughout his life a meticulous attitude towards preparation and planning, a trait he believed had been honed by his time in the army.

Following National Service he retained his association with the Argylls, becoming a senior surgical specialist to the 7th battalion in the TA reserve.

His training in academic surgery under Sir Charles continued with appointment as Hall Fellow, then lecturer in surgery, interspersed with a year of research at Rochester on a Mayo Foundation fellowship under Charles Code and Jesse Bollman. His appointment in 1963 as senior lecturer in surgery, then reader, at the Welsh National School of Medicine with Professor (later Sir) Patrick Forrest saw his academic career blossom.

During this time he was awarded the Bellahouston Gold Medal by Glasgow University for his MD thesis and the following year won the Moynihan prize and medal of the Association of Surgeons, omens for the distinguished career to follow.

In 1969 he was appointed to the chair of surgery at the University of Liverpool and here he developed an academic department of surgery of international repute. With the skills he had learned from Sir Charles, he encouraged and trained a succession of young academic surgeons across the subspecialties of general surgery.

His own research interests were based in gastroenterology, and his department produced important work on the pathophysiology and surgical management of portal hypertension. Other specialties, particularly vascular and transplant surgery, were to flourish in Liverpool under his leadership.

In 1982 he was appointed dean of the faculty of medicine and his three-year term saw the establishment of chairs in public health and general practice.

Having served the NHS locally as vice-chairman of the Mersey Regional Health Authority and then of the Royal Liverpool University Hospital Trust, he made his mark on the national stage as a member of the General Medical Council and of the Medical Research Council. By now his gifts of leadership and wise counsel were widely recognised and he was elected in succession to the presidency of the Surgical Research Society, the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, the British Society of Gastroenterology and the James IV Association of Surgeons.

In 1990 he was appointed knight bachelor in the Queen's Birthday Honours List and was made deputy lord-lieutenant of Merseyside the following year. His election, unopposed, as president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh saw the fulfilment of a long-held ambition.

During his presidency (1994-97) the size and the influence of the college continued to grow as he promoted overseas activity and surgical education through distance learning. Here, his eye for detail, his mastery of every brief and his breadth of vision came into their own. He was honoured by surgical colleges and associations the world over.

His report to the Scottish Executive, Commissioning Better Health, (1996) laid out the roles and responsibilities of health boards in the new world of purchaser/provider.

Softly spoken, always ready to listen and with a ready smile, he will be remembered by those who knew him personally for his qualities of compassion and straight talking; remembered as one who applied the same attention to detail whether performing a surgical operation, planning a strategic initiative or making a model for a grandchild; and remembered by the wider surgical world as a doyen of academic surgery of whom his formidable mentor would have been truly proud.

He is survived by Marianne, their son and two daughters.