Lives of the fellows

Elkin Percy Cumberbatch

b.20 June 1880 d.28 March 1939
MA Oxon(1920) BM BCh Oxon(1920) DMRE Cantab(1925) MRCP(1911) FRCP(1933)

Elkin Cumberbatch, son of Charles Walter Cumberbatch and his wife, the former Pamela Pillinger, was born at Queen Charlton, Somerset, was educated at St. Paul’s School, and entered Keble College, Oxford, with an open science scholarship in 1899. He obtained first class honours in the natural science school in 1903 and was a Christopher Welsh prizewinner, and in 1904 was awarded the senior university scholarship to St. Bartholomew’s, where his uncle, A. E. Cumberbatch, had been appointed as the first aural surgeon in 1882. Just before qualifying he had a serious motor-cycle accident which left him with a permanent hemianopia and an exaggeration of certain mannerisms of speech and gesture.

After graduating he held a house surgeon post at the Dorset County Hospital before returning to St. Bartholomew’s as house physician to Sir Wilmot Herringham. Later he became a demonstrator in physiology and clinical assistant in the electrical department. At that time Dr H. Lewis-Jones was head of the department, but on his retirement in 1912 it was split into the X-ray and electrical departments and Cumberbatch, at the age of thirty-two, was appointed medical officer in charge of the latter.

When the 1914-18 War started he was put in charge of the electrical department of the 1st London General Hospital (Camberwell), where he made a special study of muscle-nerve testing on which he soon became the leading expert. Cumberbatch was an enthusiast, but a critical enthusiast, for electrotherapy, demanding of himself and of others satisfactory evidence before he would accept the claims of any new method. The same reservations in his attitude to medical diathermy were displayed in the work which he did with C. A. Robinson on the use of diathermy in gonococcal infections.

As a teacher he was pre-eminent, whether lecturing to medical students, visitors or post-graduates studying for the D.M.R.E. His lectures, like his writings, were clear and concise, delivered in perfect English and enlivened with flashes of humour or apt quotations, for he had a remarkable memory and the gift of explaining difficult points by diagrams or homely similes. These lectures were the foundations of some eighty articles and books. They formed the basis of his Lectures on medical electricity (1934) which proved very popular, as did E. R. Morton’s Essentials of medical electricity, of which he edited the third edition but afterwards rewrote, so that the five subsequent editions (1919-39) appeared under his own name.

Cumberbatch had a somewhat reserved manner. He was seldom ruffled, and showed the greatest consideration for all his patients who, like his staff, felt for him a real sense of affection. In the company of his friends he was a genial and indeed brilliant conversationalist, but he had few outside interests. As a student he had played golf, but after his accident he took to billiards, and was a very keen motorist. He married Isabel Gibbons, of Valparaiso, in 1918, and had a son and a daughter.

Richard R Trail

[Brit. J. phys. Med., 1939, 2, 116-17 (p); Brit.J.Radiol, 1939, 12, 317-18;, 1939, 1, 752; Lancet, 1939, 1, 792-3; St Bart’s Hosp.J., 1938-9, 46, 161-2 (p); St. Bart’s Hosp. Rep., 1939, 72, 1-6, bibl.]

(Volume V, page 91)

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