Frank Brien was born into a doctor’s family in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His father James Wilbert Brien was a charter fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada and his mother Josephine Elizbeth née Staples was the daughter of Joseph Staples, an MP in the government of Sir John Macdonald. Frank was educated at the Windsor Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto. After graduation he spent a period of postgraduate training in Toronto and then came to the UK for further training in London. He obtained his membership of the College in 1937 and subsequently returned to Canada. That same year he married Mildred Appel and they had one daughter.
A few years of practice with his father in Windsor were interrupted by military service in northwest Europe; by the end of the war he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, had been chief of medicine at No 10 Canadian General Hospital, and was twice mentioned in despatches. His wartime experience with infectious illnesses, including diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis, enteric infections and the medical aspects of trauma and shock, provided a good base for his later responsibilities in civilian medicine at Victoria Hospital - which included, early on, a poliomyelitis epidemic. Frank Brien’s practice and clinical competence covered the entire range of non-surgical adult disorders; he epitomized the true general internist.
He was recruited to Victoria Hospital and the University of Western Ontario by G E Hall in 1945 and became professor of medicine at the age of 37. He joined a group of new young clinicians and basic scientists in a postwar period of renewal in the medical school and affiliated hospitals. Frank’s status was recognized by appointment to provincial and national organizations; including the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the council of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada - where he was vice-president (medicine), and to the boards of voluntary agencies for cancer, heart disease and arthritis.
He was elected a fellow of the American College of Physicians, of the Royal College of Physicians of London (UK), and of the Royal Society of Medicine. He was also a member of the American Geriatrics Society. He received an honorary LLD from the University of Western Ontario, life membership of the London Academy of Medicine (Ontario) and of the Ontario Medical Association and the Canadian Medical Association.
During the two decades following the second world war, when he was chief of medicine at Victoria Hospital, London, Ontario, and head of the department of medicine in the University of Western Ontario, Frank Brien earned a legendary reputation as a clinician and teacher. He was trusted and loved by patients, admired and respected by colleagues and revered by students. His universal popularity derived not from personal charisma or diplomacy but rather from openness, geniality and a natural interest in people and their problems.
A phenomenal memory allowed him to recall minute details of the clinical cases encountered throughout his life and also of the families of his patients. His judgements were experiential not bibliographic - and usually correct. He fascinated students with the depth of his practical knowledge of common conditions and yet, when challenged by the rare or unusual case, he could produce a concise summary of a range of esoteric conditions. On an English membership examination a question was asked on mushroom poisoning; it was later reported that Frank Brien’s answer would have been suitable for publication in a text book.
His recreational activities - photography, fishing, hunting, amateur radio operation - were conducted with the same enthusiasm and standards he applied to his professional career: thorough research, good equipment, precise planning, punctilious documentation and friendly camaraderie. One could ask him about calibre, range, filters, leads, flies, megahertz, and the effect of the aurora; he could answer them all and take the greatest pleasure in doing so. Following the death of his wife Mildred, he married Marguerite Banbury. There are two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
R W Gunton