Lives of the fellows

Bernard Jerahmiel Freedman

b.21 January 1912 d.11 December 1989
MRCS LRCP(1935) MB BS Lond(1938) MRCP(1938) FRCP(1969)

‘I have two hats ...’ Bernard Freedman once wrote. In fact, he was referring only to his two hats so far as words were concerned -lexicographic and didactic - not to any other aspect of his multifaceted life. For, as he recorded in a self-written obituary, he had started practice as a universal doctor. Working in an LCC hospital, it was nothing for him successively to treat a sick child, give an anaesthetic, or medically advise a staff member, besides taking the odd X-ray in the radiological department - activities which became particularly pressing during the second world war, in which he was exempt from military service.

With the coming of the NHS, however, things were to get even narrower: Freedman found himself not only on the staff of a teaching hospital but also pushed into a single specialty - initially the broad one of chest medicine, then the narrower one of asthma, and finally into a concern with bronchodilators. Nevertheless, Freedman’s fame is primarily as a student of words - which he lectured about and wrote articles on, besides acting as consultant to two dictionaries. Curiously his love - nay, obsession - was for the words themselves, their derivations, usage and abuse, and he cared little for the result when they were put together in whatever form, prose or poetry; he was passionately concerned that they should be used correctly.

When he wrote about a word the idea rumbled about in his head for weeks or months - during which time he consulted experts, friends and printed sources (sometimes very remote or unusual). He could then give a talk about them, write an article for the BMJ ‘Words’ series, or counsel Stedman's Medical Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, both of which retained him as an adviser. And his lateral thoughts always produced a worthwhile chuckle: discussing the term ‘ward round’ for instance, he observed that in recent years the course of a typical ward round had deviated even more from the circular. Yet a few physicians had been privileged to do truly circular rounds - his own experience at St Giles’ Hospital in Camberwell being a case in point. Here there was a drum-shaped block of circular plan and in each ward the beds were arranged radially around the centre: ‘... ward rounds here were both clinical and topographical.’

Tall and austere, Freedman was seemingly a loner. Get to know him and talk on his own subject, however, and his face became wreathed in interest and smiles. His proselytising for new words - Europid for Caucasian, for instance, - may not have had much impact but his regular articles, including the later series of ‘Materia Paramedica’ (BMJ), did a lot to instruct and entertain the wide readership of the British Medical Journal.

S P Lock

[, 1990,300,113]

(Volume IX, page 184)

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