Hugh Bentall, 1920-2012

October 11, 2012

The UK's first professor of cardiac surgery has died. Hugh Henry Bentall was born in Worthing, Sussex on 28 April 1920 and graduated from St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, in 1942. He started his medical career as a general surgeon at the North Middlesex Hospital. He was then appointed chief resident at The London Chest Hospital, specialising in thoracic surgery, before serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War both on British soil and on HMHS Empire Clyde, the British Pacific Fleet's only hospital vessel.

After the war, Professor Bentall pioneered new surgical techniques while attached to a series of medical schools. He taught anatomy at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School and then moved to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital in 1950, where he began to research cardiac surgery alongside his work in general and thoracic surgery.

It was this research that led Professor Bentall and his colleague Dennis Melrose and William Cleland to carry out in 1953 the first open-heart operation on an obstructed aortic valve using a Melrose Heart-Lung Machine.

They rapidly became masters of such operations. Fame and something approaching celebrity soon followed. In one dramatic episode in 1959, Professor Bentall and much of his team at the Hammersmith Hospital visited the Institute of Cardiovascular Surgery, Moscow to demonstrate their skills in five open-heart operations, observed by more than 200 of the USSR's leading surgeons. This trip behind the Iron Curtain generated a good deal of media coverage, and the professor's profile was raised even further in 1962 when he repaired a hole in the heart on the first episode of the BBC series Your Life in Their Hands.

A number of professional honours came Professor Bentall's way. In 1965, he became the UK's first professor of cardiac surgery while based at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School.

Three years later, he was elected the UK's national cardiac delegate to the European Society for Cardiovascular and Endovascular Surgery. More unusually, perhaps, he gave his name to the important (and now widespread) Bentall Procedure, which allows surgeons to replace the aortic valve, aortic root and ascending aorta at the same time.

Although he retired from surgical practice in 1985, Professor Bentall continued to teach anatomy at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine for four further years. He was also able to take lessons at the Greenwich Observatory, which allowed him to pursue his passion for antique clocks.

Professor Bentall died on 9 September and is survived by three sons and a daughter.

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