Michael Atkinson obituary

Other Lives: Professor of gastroenterology who developed the Atkinson tube, which helps people with oesophageal cancer to swallow

My mentor and friend Michael Atkinson, who has died aged 95, was for many years professor of gastroenterology at the University of Nottingham, where one of his most important contributions was the development of the Atkinson tube, which helps people with oesophageal cancer to swallow.

Born in Rawdon, just outside Leeds, to Herbert, a plumbers’ merchant, and his wife, Janet (nee Palliser), a postmistress, Michael went to Aireborough grammar school in West Yorkshire, then University College London for his medical education during the second world war.

After being evacuated on various occasions, he graduated in 1946 and became house-physician to Harold Himsworth at University College hospital (UCH), where he was greatly influenced by another physician, Thomas Lewis, who coined the term “clinical research” and who founded the Medical Research Society.

In 1950 Michael left UCH to become resident medical officer at St James’s hospital in Leeds, where he met Iris Bowman, an anaesthetist, whom he married in 1951. He then went to Hammersmith hospital in London in 1952 as a registrar and medical tutor.

After a year on a travelling fellowship (1954-55) in the US, working with the leading American gastroenterologist Walter Palmer, he worked at Massachusetts memorial hospital and Boston University, where he helped to set up a research department, investigating intestinal motility. In 1957 he returned to the UK as lecturer in medicine at the University of Leeds, which he combined with being an honorary consultant physician back at St James’s hospital.

In Leeds he studied liver disease with his research fellow, Monty Losowsky before, in 1962, becoming a consultant physician at Worcester Royal Infirmary, where he did outpatient work, and at the nearby Ronkswood hospital, where his inpatient wards were. In Worcester he was instrumental in setting up the Charles Hastings medical centre for postgraduate education.

In 1973 he went to Nottingham University, where he eventually became special professor of gastroenterology at its Queen’s Medical Centre. It was there he found sufficient space and resources to expand his work, with a coterie of young associates, and it was in the “handmade” tradition of Lewis that he devised the very practical Atkinson tube as a means of palliating the obstruction to swallowing caused by oesophageal cancers. Later versions of the tube are still used.

After retirement in 1986 Michael and Iris created a new life in Witherslack, Cumbria, where he made a lovely garden and continued his interest in walking. He also took a history degree, followed by a master’s in the history of science at Lancaster University.

Michael had a wonderfully retentive memory and could remember almost every young doctor who had worked for him, so it was especially poignant that he developed dementia when he was approaching 90.

Iris died in 2011. He is survived by their four daughters and eight grandchildren.

John Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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