Sydney Allison was born in Belfast where his father, William Lowcock Allison, was a professional photographer, and his mother was Eliza Russell, née Patterson. He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and entered Queen’s University, Belfast, qualifying with honours in 1921. As a medical student he spent a year in the Royal Navy as a surgeon probationer in a destroyer. The great ’flu epidemic wiped out many of the crew and made a profound impression upon him. Before becoming a houseman at the Royal Victoria Hospital he spent a year at sea with the Shaw Saville Company in the Far East. In 1923 he became a house physician in the West London Hospital, Hammersmith, and after obtaining his MD and the London membership was appointed registrar.
From 1925 to 1930 he was assistant physician at the Ruthin Castle in North Wales. Here he developed an interest in diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, and carried out his first epidemiological study of multiple sclerosis. In 1930 he was appointed to the staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, and became a visiting physician to Claremont Street Hospital in 1939.
He was always interested in the sea and the Navy, becoming a surgeon lieutenant RNVR in 1925. During the second world war he spent his time as a medical specialist, chiefly at Plymouth and Barrow Gurney, and was promoted to surgeon captain RNVR. In 1943 he was awarded the Volunteer Reserve Decoration, the year in which his book Sea Diseases; the story of a great natural experiment in preventive medicine in the Royal Navy was published. This book gives a vivid picture of life below deck through the centuries.
He also continued his interest in teaching, and could regularly command an audience of undergraduate and postgraduate students at 11 am on Sunday mornings, which was one of his teaching sessions prewar.
After the war, as honorary secretary of medical staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, he was concerned with the establishment of the departments of neurology and neurosurgery, with his friend Mr Cecil Calvert. He then became a full time neurologist and gave up his general medical beds. This allowed him to devote much more of his time to his two chief interests, multiple sclerosis and organic mental states.
He became probably the leading world authority on how to conduct epidemiological work in multiple sclerosis. His studies in North Wales, Northern Ireland and the Orkney and Shetland Islands and Faroes, are well known both to neurologists and epidemiologists. In 1957 he was invited to supervise two studies in North America to test the theory that latitude had a part to play in the disease. He was then made a visiting professor to the Medical College of South Carolina and the University of Dalhousie, Nova Scotia.
These studies were the subject of the Florence Tong Lecture in 1959, and of his presidential address to the section of neurology of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1962. His interest in organic mental states began during the war, and in the post-war years he spent hours of his leisure time studying cases of carbon monoxide poisoning during the recovery phase. This work culminated in the publication of The Senile Brain in 1962, which is a clinical study of organic mental states due to different causes. The subject of his Croonian Lecture was ‘Perseveration, as a sign of diffuse and focal brain damage’, given in 1966.
He had numerous publications to his credit. In 1938, with Cecil Calvert, he edited the eighth edition of Whitla’s Dictionary of Treatment and the ninth edition, with Howard Crozier, in 1957. On retirement he was invited to become honorary archivist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, which allowed him to maintain his interest in medical and Naval history.
In 1969 he published The Very Faculties, a short history of the development of ophthalmological and otorhinolaryngological services in Belfast, and in 1972 The Seeds of Time, being a short history of the Belfast General and Royal Hospital 1850-1903. This was followed in 1974 by the publication of the history of HMS Caroline, a survivor of the Battle of Jutland and training ship of the Ulster Division of the Royal Naval Reserves. His last book The Surgeon-Probationers was published in 1979.
Among his many honours were presidencies of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland (1967), Association of British Neurologists (1966), Ulster Medical Society (1969) and Ulster Neuropsychiatric Society (1952).
A few weeks before he died Sydney had returned from a three-month appointment to the department of neurosurgery, University of Rhodesia, Salisbury, where he was asked to revise their record system. Just before his final illness, he had written to ask permission to examine all cases of aphasia admitted to hospital, as there were two ideas he wanted to investigate.
His name is perpetuated in Belfast in the form of the annual Allison Lecture and prize. Sydney Allison was warmhearted and generous, a mildly obsessional and dedicated physician. In his younger days he played tennis and after his retirement spent happy hours watching cricket. In 1925 he married Elizabeth Newett Barnett Steen, the daughter of James Barnett Steen, director of a linen firm, and Annie Newett; both of Belfast. He had two daughters and a son.
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
[Brit.med.J., 1978, 1, 1427, 1631; Lancet, 1978, 1, 1108-9; Times, 13 May 1978]