John Anthony Birrell was born in Chepstow in 1892. He began his medical career at University College, Cardiff, and then moved to St George’s Hospital where he qualified in 1917. After house appointments in London, including one at the Brompton Hospital, he moved to the West Country as assistant medical officer at Wimsley Sanatorium. From here he graduated MB BS in 1920 and shortly afterwards entered general practice in Bristol. Keenly interested in medicine, he was appointed part-time honorary medical registrar at the Bristol General Hospital. Continuing in general practice he obtained the MRCP and MD in 1926. He was appointed out-patient physician to the Bristol Royal Hospital for Sick Children in 1924, and became full physician with charge of beds in 1927. He resigned from this post in 1946, partly in order to facilitate the creation of a full time Chair of child health. In 1930 he was appointed assistant physician to the Bristol General Hospital and clinical lecturer in the University. In 1933 he became a full physician and served the General Hospital and subsequently the United Bristol Hospitals with great loyalty and devotion until his retirement in 1958.
As a teacher Birrell was particularly good at explaining the technique of elementary history taking and physical signs to junior students. Possibly as a result of his experience at the Brompton, and at a sanatorium, he was especially interested in abnormal physical signs in the chest and their interpretation, taking much trouble to explain them to his students.
He wrote little, but was a sound general physician. Relying largely on his own observations, he was not much interested in special investigations. In fact, it has been said that in his later years his registrars sometimes felt that it was wise to hide the results of certain studies which they had performed on his patients. Having spent some years in general practice he was well able to appreciate the difficulties of practitioners and was in considerable demand for domiciliary consultations.
Tony Birrell was at heart a countryman and was probably never so happy as when shooting or fishing in Monmouthshire. In his early days in Bristol he took his recreation ‘messing about’ with his boat and sailing in the Bristol Channel — always a somewhat hazardous occupation on account of the tides.
A bachelor, he appeared at times rather a lonely figure and, after his retirement, increasing deafness made him withdraw more and more into himself. This also, to his great regret, prevented him from hearing the bird song which he so much enjoyed as an essential part of the country scene.
[Lancet, 1971, 2, 1212]