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Dr Carice Ellison-Cliffe obituary

By Dr Melita Irving, RSM Trustee

Dr Carice Ellison-Cliffe has died aged 98 after a short illness. Carice was well-known at the Royal Society of Medicine – she and her husband, Dr Percy Cliffe, established an annual eponymous lecture, and after his death Carice set up a travelling fellowship in their name. But the capability to act in this altruistic, generous way came from humbling beginnings and a hard-working life.

Dr Carice Ellison-Cliffe

Carice was born in 1921 in the West Riding of Yorkshire, to Harry and Eva Ellison. She was named after the daughter of composer Sir Edward Elgar, whose own child’s name was a portmanteau of his wife’s, Caroline Alice. When Harry, an ICI scientist, was made redundant, he moved the family to Worcester where he started a poultry farm. As an only child of social recluses, she found life here isolating. She even had to trek two miles to attend grammar school.

Carice recalled that, at the start of the Second World War, she would lie in bed, listening to the RAF planes overhead, and fantasise over their reconnaissance of what to her seemed a world away. So, when aged 18, she heard a radio announcement asking young women to come to wartime London and train as fever nurses, she leapt at the chance to ‘escape’. In spite of her disapproving father’s incorrect prediction that she would return home within three months, this brave move turned out to be the making of her.

Carice Ellison-Cliffe in January 2017, meeting HRH The Duke of Cambridge with RSM President Professor Sir Simon Wessely

As a nurse at the North Eastern Fever Hospital and then at the Middlesex, Carice flourished. She developed a life-long love of classical music and the theatre, regularly capitalising on a friend’s season ticket to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and complimentary attendance for nurses at West End shows in the spirit of ‘papering the house’. Realising that she was just as bright as the medical students with whom she worked on the wards was motivation enough for her to study medicine herself. Carice enrolled in night school at Chelsea Polytechnic to bring her science knowledge up to speed and secured a London County Council further education and training grant to support her at St Bartholomew’s Medical School. This was no mean feat, as in 1948 Bart’s was reluctant to accept female medical students. Under the threat of the NHS retracting their university grant, however, they succumbed – it was a sympathetic cardiologist with three daughters who finally admitted her.

Carice qualified in 1954. An early pioneer of equality for women in the male-dominated world of medicine, she regularly encountered institutionalised sexism from both her male counterparts and the nurses, finding acceptance from neither group early on. Initially she worked in paediatrics, which she relished, recalling one Christmas working on the children’s ward as the best she had ever experienced. Latterly she undertook dual training in obstetrics and psychiatry, paving the way for a unique career in psychosexual medicine at the Maudsley Hospital, South London.

Dr Carice Ellison-Cliffe with Mr B Sethia, RSM President, 2014 - 2017

Carice met Percy Cliffe when he taught her science at night school. They had to keep their blossoming friendship quiet under the threat that her grant would be redacted, but they married when she qualified and spent many wonderful years together. Percy was himself medically qualified and a self-proclaimed clinical measurer at the Westminster Hospital in Horseferry Road, where he engineered more accurate blood pressure monitors, developed a heart-lung bypass machine and designed kidney dialysis apparatus with his ‘toolmaker’ colleague, John ‘Wooden’ Gooden.

Percy and Carice did not have a family of their own and spent their time working and travelling. They had a holiday home in Villa Nova Milfontes on the Portuguese Algarve – Carice, of course, took lessons to learn the language – and they adored their weekend cottage in Savernake Forest, near Pewsey in Wiltshire, where they would regularly decamp on a Friday after a hectic working week, relaxing and tending the much-loved garden. As well as gardening, Carice’s interests included art, tapestry and reading, and, after Percy’s death in 1992, growing the foundation they established together, The Ellison-Cliffe Charitable Trust.

With Sir Simon Wessely and Mr Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder, DeepMind when he gave the 2018 Ellison-Cliffe lecture: How AI is going to impact healthcare in the future

Carice personally selected the annual lecturer, scouting for appropriately skilled speakers in learned institutions such as the Royal Society and the Royal Institution, a determined proponent of the subjects championed by her late husband’s career, science at the coalface of medicine. Before he died, Carice and Percy had the idea of extending the remit of the Trust to support an annual travelling fellowship for senior registrars and early career consultants to undertake additional specialist training overseas. This is now one of the most prestigious awards presented by the Royal Society of Medicine, and has funded 41 fellowships since 2004. Carice loved the RSM and would frequently attend meetings and social events. She even met The Duke of Cambridge during a recent visit.

Towards the end of her life, Carice struggled with early dementia, but was happily able to stay in her Chelsea home of many years, supported by friends and her devoted carers. Her philanthropy in life will continue through an ongoing legacy to support the annual Ellison-Cliffe lecture and the travelling fellowships.

By Dr Melita Irving, RSM Trustee

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