Lives of the fellows

Richard Heyworth Dobbs

b.10 May 1905 d.21 Aug 1980
MRCS LRCP(1930) BChir Cantab(1932) MB(1934) MRCP(1936) MD(1941) FRCP(1947)

Richard Heyworth Dobbs was educated at Bedales School, Downing College, Cambridge, and the London Hospital where he qualified in 1930. Enterprisingly, he persuaded the dean of the London to allow him to go for a year of his clinical course to Vienna, which was then living largely on its pre-first world war reputation as a great medical centre. Extraordinary indeed were the scenes he recounted of those times.

When a boy of ten years, Richard had a severe nephrotic illness and Sir Frederick Still was called in. Still asked him what he intended to be when he grew up and Richard replied ‘I want to be a children’s doctor like you, sir’. Their next meeting occurred some 15 years later when Still happened to examine him for the MRCP and was able to recall their earlier conversation.

Richard Dobbs’ paediatric training included a spell in the USA at the Children’s Hospital, St. Louis, and a first assistantship at University College Hospital, before he was appointed to the three hospitals at which he was to work for the next 30 years — the London Hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Hackney, and Southend General Hospital. At ‘the Queen’s’ the building of the Hayward block - which opened in 1972 - owed much to his leadership at that time. During the war years he served in the RAMC as lieutenant colonel in charge of a hospital medical division in the Middle East.

For 15 years Richard was editor of Archives of Disease in Childhood, during a period in which the journal was actively expanding in size and scope. He was president of the British Paediatric Association in 1970.

In middle age Richard took up sailing and, despite minimal experience, sailed his 45ft Natasha in ocean races. On one notable voyage he carried a crew of paediatricians to Copenhagen, to attend the International Congress of Paediatrics. Largely dispensing with the bothersome mechanics of formal navigation methods, he was surprisingly adept at finding his way about the sea, apparently relying on an inborn talent for recognizing a coastline, allied to a characteristically happy-go-lucky attitude to the kind of lurking hazards that are apt to keep other less intrepid yachtsmen in a state of mild chronic anxiety. He had also learned to ski at the age of five years and represented the University during his time at Cambridge, thereafter managing to get to Switzerland each year until he was 65.

When he reached retirement age in 1970, it seemed that he might have difficulty finding adequate outlets for his still abundant energies and capabilities. The first requisite for a happy retirement is good health, and with this he was blessed well into his mid-70s. The second is for the individual to define what he enjoys doing and arrange his life accordingly. Richard decided that looking after sick children was what he enjoyed best, and he spent six months with the Grenfell Mission in Labrador, where he acquired such skills as how to erect an igloo in under ten minutes, before going to Nigeria as professor of paediatrics at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. This was to be his and his wife’s home for the next five years, and his enthusiasm and sound judgement of priorities proved just what was needed to build up the recently established children’s unit there. His natural friendliness made him a popular teacher of students, while his many contacts in Britain and elsewhere enabled him to bring in a regular supply of keen young paediatricians at registrar level to enliven and strengthen the unit.

His wife, Phyllis, also a doctor, was his companion for over 60 years, from the time they were school fellows at Bedales and medical students together at Cambridge and the London. Their home, which they built on the summit of Hampstead Hill, was the scene of great hospitality to friends from all over the world. They had a son and a daughter. Richard’s particular quality was his outgoing friendly personality, and this enabled him to get quickly on easy terms with people of all sorts - patients, colleagues, foreigners, the young and the old.

D Gibbs
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1980, 281, 752]

(Volume VII, page 156)

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