James Nixon Briggs died suddenly and unexpectedly at his home in Winnipeg, shortly before his 66th birthday.
Jim Briggs, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, was born in Dublin of Irish parents. His father was a general practitioner in Wallasey, Cheshire, and it was there and in Belfast that he spent his childhood. He was educated at Cheltenham College and King’s College, London. He did his medical training at Charing Cross Hospital, graduating with honours in 1945. After house appointments at Charing Cross Hospital and at Hillingdon County Hospital, he moved to the Sheffield Children’s Hospital in 1946, where he was to come under the influence of R S Illingworth, the first full time professor of child health at the University of Sheffield. As clinical assistant to the professorial unit, Jim had a heavy clinical and teaching load but despite this he obtained his DCH, MD, and membership of the College during the next two years. His career in paediatrics was temporarily interrupted between 1948-50 when he served as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force, becoming medical specialist at the RAF hospital in Aden with the rank of squadron leader.
Following demobilization he returned to Sheffield as senior registrar to Illingworth, who was in the process of building a strong academic paediatric unit. Jim was caught up in the many clinical studies that were being conducted into the children’s diseases of the day and developed particular interests in rheumatic fever, nephritis and epilepsy; several important research papers on these topics appeared under his name.
In 1952 Jim accepted a position in the paediatric department of the Winnipeg Clinic and emigrated to central Canada with his family. He rapidly established a large practice in Winnipeg, where his unique clinical skills became recognized by the medical community throughout Manitoba. He was a brilliant diagnostician and spared no effort to get to the bottom of the most complex clinical problem. As a staff member of the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg General Hospital, and on the part-time faculty of the University of Manitoba, his skills as a teacher and investigator were quickly appreciated by Harry Medovy, and during the late 1950s and ‘60s he became much involved in improving the level of perinatal care, to which he made a major contribution. Working closely with obstetricians and pathologists, he became interested in the then poorly understood condition of the respiratory distress syndrome that resulted in the deaths of many prematurely born infants. He developed the hypothesis that this condition might be successfully treated with an aerosolized surface tension lowering agent and in 1953 he conducted a controlled clinical trial to test his hypothesis. The treatment was unsuccessful, but what is remarkable is that the published report in 1955 shows that his thinking about the pathogenesis of respiratory distress was far ahead of his time and antedated the discovery of pulmonary surfactant by some four years. Jim loved to teach and he sustained the respect of his students throughout his career. In recognition of his contribution to medical education and research the University of Manitoba promoted him to full professor in 1974. He was elected a Fellow of the RCP in 1975.
While continuing his busy and exacting paediatric practice in Winnipeg, Jim became concerned about the special problems of Canada's native children in Northern Manitoba. He accepted a consultant appointment to St Anthony’s Hospital at The Pas in 1954, and from then until his death he made regular visits to this northern town, as well as to several isolated Indian communities, to see patients referred to him and to teach local health professionals about the many problems, medical, cultural and social, that were responsible for the greater morbidity and mortality rates of Indian children as compared to those of Canada as a whole. The much better health these children now enjoy is undoubtedly due in part to Jim’s pioneering work and to the example he set to others who later became involved in the solution of the health care problems of native children in Canada.
Jim had a flair for administration and his talents were put to good use at the hospitals he served. For many years he was on the council of the Winnipeg Clinic and was involved in its administrationa and in recruitment of new staff. For the last few years of his life he was also heavily involved with the affairs of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba. Appointed a member of council in 1974, he served at one time or another on all its committees and became its president in 1985.
Jim had a very stimulating influence on his professional colleagues; things could never be dull when he was around. He usually had some story or some quip that made one laugh and he talked easily to all types of people, especially the parents of his patients. He was forthright and never hesitated to criticize when something was not to his liking, especially something he felt was injurious to the highest standards of patient care. Criticism, however, was constructive, never malicious, and he never bore a permanent grudge.
His life was lived to the full. His professional life was extremely time consuming and demanding but he seemed to thrive on hard work. Yet with his family, of which he was inordinately proud, and with his friends he could relax completely. Many enjoyed the hospitality of Jim and his wife Judy in their attractive house and beautiful garden on the banks of the Assiniboine River. Apart from medicine, his interests were catholic. He was particularly interested and knowledgeable about the history of the part of the country in which he lived, and he enjoyed good literature and classical music. In his youth he was a strong swimmer and he regularly played tennis until shortly before his death.
Jim Briggs was survived by his wife Judy, his son Rodney - in the Canadian Diplomatic Service -, his daughter Jane, and three grandchildren.