b.4 Jan 1912 d.9 Sept 1994
CBE(1969) MB ChB Birm(1936) DCH(1938) MRCP(1938) MD(1947) FRCP(1956) Hon FRCGP(1982)
Donald Court was a visionary of great stature who profoundly influenced the understanding of child health in this country, a leader ahead of his day. Yet for all his achievements he is remembered chiefly for his qualities as a human being. He was loved and admired for his compassion, his humanity, his humour, his wisdom and fundamental humility.
He was born in Wem, Shropshire, the son of David Henry Court, a schoolmaster, and his wife Ethel Fanny (née Mayneord). After early education at Adams Grammar School, Wem, and at the County High School, Redditch, he went on to Birmingham University. After three years training in dentistry he switched to medicine and qualified with honours, a distinction in medicine and the Russell memorial prize in neurology. Following resident appointments at the Queens Hospital and the General Hospital, Birmingham, he became house physician to Donald Paterson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.365] at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and later paediatric registrar at the Westminster Hospital. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends, he was exempted from military service and throughout this period he served in the emergency medical services at the Westminster Hospital and Ashford Hospital, Middlesex.
He joined the department of child health in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1946 as a Nuffield fellow. A year later he was appointed reader in child health at King’s College, University of Durham - later the University of Newcastle - and succeeded James Spence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.386] in 1955, becoming the first James Spence professor of child health. He visited the United States in 1950 and again in 1970. In 1969 he gave the Turner-Gibson oration in Sydney on ‘fact and fancy in acute respiratory disease’ and also visited New Zealand. He was a member of the paediatric committee at the College and gave the Charles West lecture on 'child health in a changing community’ in 1970.
After joining the department in Newcastle he quickly became involved in the planning and implementation of the major epidemiological study A thousand families in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Sir James Spence and others, London, Oxford University Press, 1954). In the course of the next 15 years he made 3000 home visits. The insights gained from these visits profoundly influenced his perspective throughout his professional life; for him, the child was never seen in isolation but always as part of a family, which in turn was part of a neighbourhood and the wider community. He was a brilliant clinician whose care of patients was exemplary for his readiness to share responsibility with specialist colleagues. He took a particular interest in the common problems of childhood, including intussusception, acute respiratory infections - where he was among the first to use the technique of rapid virus diagnosis - and disorders of speech. His collaboration with speech therapists led to the establishment of a University department of speech. His gifts as a speaker and lecturer made him an outstanding teacher and he played a major role in the successful revision of the Newcastle medical curriculum. Court was sensitive to stress experienced by students on the medical course and was instrumental in the introduction of a personal tutor system. He was an effective advocate of child health as a university subject and fostered progressive specialization within paediatrics. He was also alive to the health needs of children in the developing world, visiting Ghana, the Cameroons, Uganda and Kenya, and encouraging the development in his department of teaching instruments for third world paediatricians. Among the honours he received were the CBE, the James Spence medal of the BPA, the Nils Rosen von Rosenstein medal of the Swedish Paediatric Association, and honorary fellowships of the Royal Society of Medicine, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the College of Speech Therapists.
Court took early retirement in 1972 on election to the presidency of the British Paediatric Association, being the first to hold that office for a three-year term, between 1973 and 1976. He also served as chairman of the academic board of the BPA. While president of the BPA and chairman of the Child Health Services Committee, the report of the committee, Fit for the future, was published in 1976. Known as the ‘Court Report’ it made detailed recommendations for the organization of children’s services. Although the initial reception was muted and one of the most radical proposals - the creation of general practitioner paediatricians - was rejected outright, a national debate was initiated and most of the proposals have now come into effect.
In addition to his contributions to medical journals and his collaboration in A thousand families…, Donald Court edited The medical care of children…, London, Oxford University Press, 1963 and was co-author with A Jackson of Paediatrics in the seventies, London & New York, Oxford University Press, 1972. He also edited selections from the writings of Sir James Spence, published under the title The purpose and practice of medicine, London, Oxford University Press, 1960.
Court was a deeply religious man, which found expression in his Quaker faith. He drew inspiration from his wide reading, from the Northumbrian countryside, from gardening and, in particular, from poetry. His conversation and lectures were often illuminated by the apt quotation, usually from Auden or Eliot. He married Frances Edith Radcliffe, also a doctor, in 1939 and they had a daughter and two sons. The younger son, Simon, is a Fellow of the College. Donald Court’s marriage was an important facet of his life and lasted for 53 years. His later retirement years were marred by a serious head injury sustained in a fall downstairs in 1986, from which he never fully recovered.
J K G Webb
[Brit.med.J., 1995,310,323; Times, 7 Oct 1994; The Independent, 6 Oct 1994]
(Volume X, page 77)
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