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John Leigh Collis

John Leigh Collis


An innovator in oesophageal surgery














John Leigh Collis, former thoracic surgeon West Midlands (b Birmingham 1911; q Birmingham 1935; MD, FRCS), d 4 February 2003.

Professor John Leigh Collis, universally known as Jack, received eponymous recognition for two surgical procedures. He was perhaps best known for the Collis gastroplasty for patients with persistent acid reflux and resulting stricture of the lower oesophagus. This innovative and elegant procedure involved the ingenious refashioning of the stomach to replace the strictured oesophagus, and also to recreate the cardiac sphincter so as to maintain its function and continence. The second operation was the Collis repair of the lower oesophagus for patients with hiatus hernia causing reflux.

Jack also developed a programme for the management of oesophageal cancer that secured results unsurpassed in any other centre in the world attempting this demanding and hazardous type of surgery. Over 20 years his operative mortality rate was half that of his contemporaries and his suture line leak rate even by today's standards was remarkably low.

He gained his early experience of general surgery as resident surgical officer at Birmingham General Hospital. Subsequently, as resident surgical officer at the Brompton Hospital, London, in 1938, he trained under the doyen of British thoracic surgeons, Tudor Edwards. In 1943, he obtained his MD, with honours, for his observations on the development of metastatic cerebral abscess associated with suppurative conditions of the lung, and demonstrated that the route for this infection was by way of the vertebral veins. In 1944 he was awarded a Hunterian professorship by the Royal College of Surgeons.



During the early years of the second world war, Jack commanded the emergency medical services thoracic surgical unit at Barnsley Hall, Bromsgrove, which took the casualties from the bombing of the industrial centres of Birmingham and Coventry. Later he set up and commanded the thoracic surgical field unit to follow the D Day invasion forces. The unit was mentioned in dispatches during the campaign. From Europe he was posted to command the thoracic surgical unit in India, finally returning to England as a lieutenant colonel.

After the war he became assistant surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. At that time surgical specialties were not recognised as such; everyone was appointed as a general surgeon. Younger members of the staff had to participate in the emergency surgical rota and Jack continued to deal with abdominal emergencies. His life at this time entailed much arduous journeying between hospitals to perform the thoracoplasty procedure for tuberculosis. Jack was on the visiting staff of sanitoria in Warwick, Malvern, and Burton-on-Trent.

The development of cardiac surgery provided a new challenge and Jack was responsible for a fine series of successful mitral valvotomies. The ingenious improvisation of an instrument from a sharpened dessert spoon and a piece of wire gauze enabled him to be one of the first to remove a tumour from within the cavity of the left atrium. He also pioneered a procedure to correct ventricular septal defects following heart attacks. Although an able exponent of both closed cardiac surgical operations and those requiring a heart-lung machine, he later withdrew from this field to concentrate on surgery of the oesophagus.

In the absence of today's modern materials he instigated the use of fine (fuse) wire as a secure suture material. His trainees still ruefully remember the fiddly business of anastomising inaccessible bits of gut with fine steel sutures as “trial by wire.”

Jack was a vehemently proud citizen of Birmingham, devoting much of his retirement to promoting the city.

Predeceased by his wife, Mavis, he leaves four children and 15 grandchildren.

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