Lives of the fellows

Eric Hatfield Back

b.30 January 1920 d.21 December 1992
VRD(1959) BA(1941) MRCS LRCP(1943) MB BChir Cantab(1943) MA(1943) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1968)

Eric Back was the grandson of a Norfolk parson and son of Captain G R B Back RN and his wife Olive née Maitland, whose father was a surgeon captain in the Royal Navy. He was educated at Bramdean Preparatory School, Exeter, and Marlborough College. In 1938 he was a major scholar in mathematics to Clare College, Cambridge, but chose instead to study medicine, the profession of has maternal grandfather. He commenced his clinical work at the London Hospital medical school in 1940, at the start of the ‘blitz’. In addition to his studies he had to help with fire-watching on the roof of the hospital and be ready to deal with incendiary bombs. As an undergraduate he was also involved in guard duty at the Cambridge and Duxford aerodrome, where his unit boasted one Bren gun that worked and another that did not - such was the defence of the UK in the summer of 1940. He qualified in January 1943 and six months later, after student house officer posts, he passed his MB BChir. Eric then joined the RNVR as a medical officer. Through a chance recommendation he was invited to join operation ‘Tabarin’ to Antartica. It was here that his boyhood interest in weather recording was to come in useful; as meterologist he set up the first permanent weather station on the continent. After two years in the south he spent sometime in the Falkland Islands working on weather reports with David Niddrie and acting as anaesthetist at the hospital, where the equipment provided was said to be antiquated even by the standards of the time. He was awarded the Polar Medal in 1944-45. On his way back to the UK he had to wait three months in Montevideo for a passage home; he stayed in an hotel where no English was spoken -and learnt to speak Latin American Spanish, which was useful to him later on in the West Indies.

Back in the UK, Eric served on HMS Cyclops, a submarine depot ship and the last coal burner in the Royal Navy. He was demobilized in 1947 and worked for six months as casualty officer at the North Middlesex Hospital where, in the icy winter of that year, he might have a dozen broken arms to set at the end of a 12-hour day. He married Christina née Travers, daughter of an aviator, in 1948. They had three children; a daughter and an adopted son and daughter. His wife strongly supported him throughout his career.

Having obtained his membership of the College, Eric subsequently held paediatric appointments at the London Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. From 1950-54 he was senior registrar in paediatrics at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, London. In 1954 he was appointed senior lecturer in paediatrics at the University College of the West Indies (later the University of the West Indies) and consultant in charge of the paediatric department at the University College Hospital. In 1966 he was appointed to the first chair in paediatrics at the University of the West Indies, an appointment he held until 1972 when he resigned in order to join his family in England.

While in the West Indies, Eric taught undergraduate and postgraduate medical students from all the English speaking countries of the Caribbean, including British Honduras (now Belize) and British Guiana (now Guyana). In addition, he visited these countries together with members of the paediatric team and representatives of the social and preventive medicine department. The visits were usually short and well planned, like sledging trips, so that teaching and patient care suffered the least possible disruption. Paediatrics at the University in the ‘50s and ‘60s consisted of treating large numbers of acutely ill and often malnourished children. Eric organized ‘well baby clinics* for immunization, counselling and early recognition of chronic disorders. He was an excellent teacher and brilliant clinician, who quickly pin-pointed the salient points of a complex problem. He loved children and enjoyed teaching. Medical students knew that if they wanted some extra tuition in paediatrics they only had to walk into the paediatric ward; if Eric was there they would be quickly rounded up and interesting cases discussed.

Eric was by nature honest and outspoken and one knew exactly where one stood. He always supported his juniors and they, in turn, were loyal to him. His free afternoons were devoted to the care of children in the corporation’s Childrens’ Home at Maxfield Park; this was at the invitation of the then Prime Minister’s sister. He was visiting professor to the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada, and other North American medical schools. He also attended WHO and PAHO conferences in the Americas. Despite his onerous commitments, he continued to serve as a member of the Royal Navy Reserve, being promoted to surgeon lieutenant commander and awarded the VRD in 1959. After returning home to the UK in 1972, Eric was appointed the first full-time paediatrician at Great Yarmouth, where he took his due share of administrative responsibility. Perhaps his happiest moment at Great Yarmouth was when approval was given for building the new District General Hospital, now the James Paget Hospital.

Eric, whose baptism had been performed by his grandfather, was a practising Christian. He said morning prayers while in the Antartic and occasionally at Norton Subcourse where he was church warden at the time of his death. He had been an elected member of the Norwich Diocesan Synod for some years. He was a member of the Prayer Book Society and while in the West Indies had been chairman of an interdenomational chapel committee which arranged the chapel services at the University. He was a member of the Naval Club and president of the Antarctic Club in 1992. For many years he was a member of the BMA and he was reading the British Medical Journal even during his last admission to hospital. He enjoyed gardening and listening to church bells.

CG Miller

[Brit.med.J., 1993,306,1536; The Daily Telegraph, 14 Apr 1993]

(Volume IX, page 19)

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