Ross Tilley

Sir Archibald McIndoe is not the only name synonymous with the wartime work of the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. The name of another man who came from Canada and helped to rebuild lives became equally linked with this period. He made such an impact that the main ward at Queen Victoria Hospital now bears his name – Dr Ross Tilley.

Albert Ross Tilley was born in Bowmanville, Ontario, on 24 November 1904. His interest in medicine was piqued at an early age, as he had the privilege of accompanying his GP father while he visited patients. Ross graduated from the University of Toronto Medical School in 1929 as a silver medallist. Following medical school, he travelled extensively for five years, studying surgery at the Toronto Western Hospital in Ontario, the Roosevelt and Bellevue Hospitals in New York, The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in Scotland and with the renowned pathologist Sternberg in Vienna.

By 1935, he was ready to open a private practice working at the Wellesley and Toronto Western Hospitals. In the same year, he joined the No 400 City of Toronto Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as a medical officer and began what would turn out to be the most important training of his career. Dr E Fulton Risdon, a protégée of Sir Harold Gillies, and widely regarded as the father of modern plastic surgery in Canada, would guide Ross’s focused training in plastic surgery.

At the time, Dr Risdon was one of only three plastic surgeons in Canada and Ross became the fourth upon the completion of his training, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Ross was called up to active service in 1939 and by 1940 he was a Commanding Officer and C Surgeon at Trenton Memorial Hospital. A year later, he was appointed Principal Medical Officer at the RCAF headquarters in London. Shortly after arriving in London, he received a life-altering invitation, the acceptance of which would set into motion a chain of events that literally changed the faces of hundreds of airmen.

Second World War at East Grinstead

Equipped with his newly honed skills in plastic surgery, Ross travelled to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead in January 1942. There he was charged with treating the most difficult burn injuries.

Shortly after arriving at East Grinstead, it became apparent to Ross that the increasing number of Canadian burn casualties flooding the hospital would need their own ward. Under his planning and leadership as the newly appointed Chief Surgeon and Commanding Officer, Royal Canadian Engineers prepared to erect a 50-bed wing that would cost $80,000 and take a year to build. Upon its completion in 1944, the Canadian wing had a staff of over 50 people, including orderlies, specialist nurses and clerks.

After operating all day and into the evening, Ross would rest briefly in his living quarters only to make his way back to the hospital at 23:00 to check how his patients were faring after their surgeries. In a medical landscape dominated by rampant paternalism, Ross was another pioneer of patient empowerment who went to great lengths to educate his patients about every aspect of their care, every nuance of their surgeries and the intricate details of what they could expect during recovery.

By 1944, when the Canadian wing at Queen Victoria Hospital opened, Ross was promoted to the rank of Group Captain. In June of the same year, he found himself standing in front of King George VI at Buckingham Palace with the Order of the British Empire bestowed upon him. This prestigious award was fitting recognition of his success in Britain — along with the work of McIndoe and the hospital staff, they had become “the most formidable and effective response to burn injuries, anywhere in the world”.

Ross also served as president of the Canadian branch of the Guinea Pig Club and continued to operate on over 200 of its members for the next 40 years, continuing to dedicate a tremendous amount of personal attention to the emotional and psychological condition of his patients.

Life after the war

Upon his return from Britain in 1945, Ross became a consulting physician at Christie Street Hospital and Toronto Wellesley Hospital. For several years between 1949 and 1965, he also spent three days every month in Kingston, where he worked as a staff physician at the Hotel Dieu, Kingston General and Kingston Military Hospitals.

As one of only 10 plastic surgeons practising in Canada after the war ended, he was extremely busy laying the framework for the future of his specialism. His colleagues viewed him as capable of breaking new ground and, as an assistant professor at Queens University, he became the first to offer formal accredited courses in the specialism.

Ross was one of the 12 founding fathers of the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons in 1947. At its second annual meeting on 2 June 1948, the society’s members empowered him to draft a fee schedule for the operations performed most commonly by plastic surgeons. Appointed vice-president in 1953 and then president in 1954, his leadership of the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons helped establish the profession in Canada and paved the way for the exponential growth and prosperity it would experience in subsequent years. As his specialism flourished across the country, he continued to infuse his discipline with respect and integrity as he campaigned for years to develop burn treatment facilities in Ontario.

In 1984, his vision came to fruition and a burns centre named after him was opened at Wellesley Hospital. It was later moved to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in 1998 – the Ross Tilley Burn Centre. Only three years after becoming the first plastic surgeon to be appointed a member of the Order of Canada, Ross also assumed the role of founder and director of the first adult burn centre in Canada. Even after retiring from practice at Wellesley and Sunnybrook hospitals in 1981, he continued to be recognised for his outstanding career.

After dedicating much of his 84 years of life to his patients, Albert Ross Tilley died on 19 April 1988. The Dr A Ross Tilley Foundation was created in 1989 by several plastic surgeons and Jean Tilley, Ross’s widow. The original goal of the Foundation was to award a scholarship in his honour and to commemorate his achievements. An elementary school in his hometown of Bowmanville was named in his honour and he was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

This article is based on: Albert Ross Tilley: The legacy of a Canadian plastic surgeon by Kevin S Mowbrey