THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Geoffrey Wooler FRCS (1911-2010)
Pioneering Heart Surgeon
There can’t be many distinguished surgeons who would choose to open a restaurant on their retirement, but this is what Geoffrey Wooler did – a mark of his bold and innovative spirit, a spirit that had been evident throughout his life and had led him into some extraordinary adventures.
He was born in 1911 into a well-to-do Leeds family, who had made their money from a successful business in sanitary engineering. By the time he was born, his mother had lost her sight through an infection, but it was a close, happy family. He remembered with affection his nursemaid, who taught him to knit and crochet – skills which he never lost and later declared were invaluable in his surgical career! At eighteen, uncertain what direction to take, he followed his brother to Cambridge to study law, but he found it dull stuff and he switched to medicine, which fascinated him. After graduating, he started his clinical work in a London hospital, working with an eminent thoracic surgeon.
His future looked mapped out for him. But in 1939, when he was only 28, the expected pattern of his life was shattered, as it was for so many young men, by the outbreak of war. He was called up and drafted into the Royal Army Medical Corps as a surgeon. He worked on the battlefront, first in North Africa and then in the front line of the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy, notably at Monte Cassino. He had to operate in the most primitive of field hospitals, in desperate conditions, in the thick of the battle. During a period of three years he operated on some 3000 men wounded in the fighting, some of them with terrible injuries. By the time he was demobilised in 1946 he had been promoted to Lt.Colonel and ‘mentioned in despatches’.
He returned to London but in 1947 was invited to Leeds to take up the post of consultant in cardio-thoracic surgery at the Infirmary. This was a time when the first heart-lung machines were being developed in this country and he managed to secure one of the prototypes for the Infirmary. He and his team of surgeons experimented with the new machine until they felt confident enough to operate on their first patient. It was high-risk surgery. He continued to develop new techniques and in 1957 led one of the world’s greatest surgical advances when he and his team performed a successful open-heart operation. His pioneering work attracted international recognition, and inspired others to follow him into this vital life-saving field of cardiac surgery.
On a personal level his warmth, humour and generosity of spirit won him many friends all over the world. Some of his fellow surgeons formed a society in his honour, and in 1989 put up a plaque commemorating his work at the entrance to the Leeds Infirmary. He kept in touch with his many overseas friends and colleagues and travelled widely. He had particularly close links with Italy and Yugoslavia as it was then, and bought houses in both countries – the ancient house he owned and restored in the island of Korcula was especially dear to him.
When he retired from the Infirmary in 1974, he looked round for a fresh challenge. He decided to open a restaurant in a property he owned next to his home in Shaw Lane, Headingley – against everyone’s advice. This bold venture was not a success – he wrote about it later under the heading ‘how not to run a restaurant’! – and a year later he gave it up. He continued to travel and enjoy the company of family and friends, spending his later years between his two homes, in the Dales and at Shaw Grange, Headingley.
In 1999, aged 88, he published his memoirs, ‘Pig in a Suitcase’, full of memories of his war experiences and other anecdotes of his varied and adventurous life. He died earlier this year, in his 99th year.