Written by Maninder Kalkat
Ronald Belsey was a consultant thoracic surgeon known worldwide for his innovative techniques in oesophageal surgery. He was born on 2 April 1910 in London and educated at Woodbridge School, Suffolk. He won an entrance scholarship to St Thomas’ Hospital where, in addition to medical studies, he played rugby and ice hockey. Gifted with not only technical virtuosity, he also possessed an independent and enquiring mind. He trained in London with the doyens of thoracic surgery and undertook research in the USA with Edward (Pete) Churchill resulting in the landmark study on pulmonary segments as the key anatomic unit of the lung and segmental lung. On returning to England, coinciding with the break of World War II, Belsey worked at Frenchay Hospital and started developing his oesophageal surgery and established this unit as a world-renowned thoracic centre in the south-west of England, training surgeons who went on to lead some of the best centres in Europe and North America.
He was involved in adult and congenital cardiac surgery. Despite his commitment to paediatric cardiac surgery, his main interest was in congenital tracheo-oesophageal fistula, atresia and other non-cardiac conditions in the newborn. This is when he pioneered the use of the left hemicolon in oesophageal replacement surgery. Belsey’s greatest impact on the surgery of oesophageal disease is evident in the competence of a legion of global trainees. There have been some 45 foreign students from all corners of the world, many of whom went on to develop strong academic programs in oesophageal surgery e.g. Clement Hiebert, David Skinner, Arthur Baue, Mark Orringer, Joel Cooper, and Tony Lerut.
He was a man of broad and diverse interests, a gifted practitioner of fly fishing, upland game hunting, and the fine arts. He was never idle or bored in retirement and advised his students that it was important to “begin planning your retirement from the day you begin practice!”
He was 97 years of age at the time of his death in 2007.