Ronald Christie was born in Edinburgh, son of Dugald Christie CMG who, as a medical missionary, had founded the medical school at Mukden in Manchuria. Ronald spent the first eleven years of his life at Mukden, returning to George Watson’s College in Edinburgh in 1913 to continue his education. He never forgot the Mandarin Chinese he had learned as a boy.
After medical graduation and a year of internships, he sailed for New York to become a research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute in 1926. Here he worked with Carl Binger and D D Van Slyke. Although he was offered a staff position in 1928, he joined J C Meakins, physician in chief at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal. In 1929 he won a scholarship and spent that year in Aschoff's pathology laboratory in Freiburg, Germany, becoming fluent in German. From 1930-35 he was the first full-time research associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria. Here he did his pioneering work on lung mechanics in emphysema. He returned to Britain in 1935, accepting the position of reader in medicine with A W M Ellis [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI,p. 162],later Sir Arthur, at the London Hospital. In 1938 he was appointed professor of medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
During the second world war Ronald became involved, through the Medical Research Council, with the early use of penicillin; and in the years immediately after the war he visited a number of countries on behalf of WHO, speaking on its manufacture and use. He also published important clinical trials on penicillin in the treatment of subacute bacterial endocarditis. From 1946-55, he built up a respiratory research group at Bart’s in which many young investigators were trained. In 1955 he accepted an invitation to return to the Royal Victoria and McGill as physician in chief. Here he was able to implement many of his ideas on the structure of an academic department of medicine, and its integration with part-time physicians. Residency training was considered an important priority. The department, under his leadership, became a leading research and advanced training centre in North America.
In the London and Canadian Royal Colleges of Physicians he played an important role in restructuring the specialty examinations in medicine.
He was full-time dean of the McGill Faculty from 1964-68, when he retired. However, there was no period of inactivity since he was supported by the Commonwealth Foundation to investigate the relationship of different patterns of health care financing to medical school activities. This work led to his 1969 Harveian Oration on ‘Medical education and the State’, which contained many original perceptions. At the time of his death Ronald was working on a paper on Erasistratus whose physiological experiments, in the third century BC, Ronald felt had been unjustly criticized by Galen.
Apart from his honorary degrees, Ronald received many honours -including the Trudeau medal of the American Thoracic Society in 1975, the gold medal of the American College of Chest Physicians in 1969, and the Duncan Graham award of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in 1983.
To these factual details much might be added. Ronald was an excellent and sympathetic bedside teacher, both to students and patients; his absolute integrity was immediately evident. He had an acute perception of the untested assumptions of contemporary medicine but no interest in its ‘haute politique’. He had no particular liking for public speaking. His unrivalled experience of medical practice on both sides of the Atlantic made him a shrewd critic of the vices and virtues characteristic of Britain and North America. His dedication to the ideals of academic medicine was apparent from his career.
He was the most ‘unpompous’ of men, readily approachable and with a detachment from and insight into the pyschology of medical practice. He was an acute judge of other people and built his successful career by encouraging others to make the best use of their potential. He never lost his interest in China and startled the performers of the Peking Opera, who came to the Royal Victoria Hospital to commemorate Norman Bethune, by thanking them in Chinese.
His love of dry-fly fishing was proverbial. He had had a croft in Scourie in Sutherlandshire since the mid- 1930s, and three months before he died he went there for three weeks. His friends wondered whether the countries he chose to study for the Commonwealth Foundation, and the timing of his visits, did not bear some relationship to the trout fishing.
Whatever patterns of health care financing, or of organized medical research, may develop in the future, Ronald’s qualities will always remain central to excellence.
Ronald married Joyce Ervine in 1933; she predeceased him in 1968. Their children were Janet (Dr Janet Seely of Ottawa) and Dugald, a lawyer, living in Vancouver BC. In 1976 he married Manette Loomis, widow of his long time friend Dr Alfred Loomis of New York.
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme