Lives of the fellows

Robert Mowbray

b.23 May 1914 d.20 May 1986
MB BS Durh(1936) MD(1938) DCH(1938) MRCP(1939) FRCP(1960)

Robert Mowbray was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. His father, also Robert Mowbray, was of independent means and had his son educated at the Royal Grammar School. Robert had a distinguished career as a student in the medical school and Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, graduating with first class honours from the University of Durham, at that time the parent university. After resident appointments at his teaching hospital he went, again as a resident, to work at Paddington Green Children’s Hospital, London, under R H Miller [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV,553] who had a special interest in rheumatic heart disease. The cardiological interest thus inspired remained with Robert all his life and later prompted Sir William Hume [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.206] to invite him to become the first secretary of the newly formed Newcastle Cardiac Club.

Robert returned to Newcastle as medical registrar, but the second world war soon supervened and as a reservist he was called up on the first of September 1939. Soon promoted to the rank of major, RAMC, he served as a medical specialist in France, the UK and the Middle East. He was in charge of a casualty clearing station in Italy and Austria, and mentioned in despatches. His interest in things military continued into peace time and he was, successively, lieutenant colonel in charge of the medical division and colonel in command of No 1 Northern General Hospital, TA. On demobilization he had returned to his post as medical registrar and from 1947-50 he worked under F J Nattress [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.421] as first assistant and lecturer in medicine. While in this post he published some papers on varied medical topics and at the same time developed his interest in books, and in the history of medicine.

In 1950 Robert was appointed senior physician to the Durham City group of hospitals, based principally on Dryburn Hospital, where he developed an excellent medical unit with a prominent cardiological component. The medical students seconded to him from Newcastle found him a gifted teacher, and the various maladies in his wards a refreshing contrast to the over-specialization which was creeping into some of the wards of the teaching hospitals in Newcastle. In his early years he also did private practice but, like several of his contemporaries in the region, paid the penalty of providing a prompt, efficient and kindly hospital service by finding private practice not worth while in terms either of time or money. However, his reputation as a physician spread outside Durham. In 1956 he was given the freedom of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and for several years he served on the panel of examiners for the membership examination of the Royal College of Physicians.

Within the Durham group of hospitals his influence extended beyond his own department into the development of Dryburn as a self-sufficient district general hospital, with its own department of medical physics and a fine postgraduate centre and library. It was not surprising therefore that in 1964 he was invited to become a member of the Regional Health Authority, of which he soon became vice-chairman and, most importantly, chairman of its medical advisory committee. His service with the RHA continued beyond his retirement from clinical work in 1979, until 1982. He was also a member of a DHSS working party on hospital development.

After his retirement, Robert left his lovely house in Durham, with its incomparable view across the city to the cathedral, and settled in the village of Little Salkeld, near Penrith in Cumbria, where he and his wife tended a very beautiful garden and where, when not fishing in the River Eden, he could browse among his books in a spacious library. These books, by now a large collection of early editions, both medical and non-medical, reflected the breadth of his interests and after his death they sold for a large sum. He died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Mowbray was a man of medium height and solid build, for whom in later years the wise abandonment of a pipe seemed a physical loss. As a clinician he was well read, competent and kind, and inspired much confidence in his patients. Possessed of much geniality and charm, he was also firm and occasionally even obstinate in his opinions and purposes. It was these qualities combined with his considerable intelligence which made him so successful a chairman and medical adviser. His marriage, in 1938, to Ivrene Violet Stenhouse, a fellow medical graduate and daughter of an ENT surgeon, was a very happy one and they had two sons. The elder inherited his parents’ medical genes and entered practice as a primary care physician in Newfoundland. The younger inherited his father’s gift for medical administration and became director of the management advisory service to the NHS.

Mowbray’s two disappointments in his career were a narrow failure to be appointed to the consultant staff of his teaching hospital, and the foundering of his plans to establish a medical faculty in the University of Durham after it had separated from Newcastle. Having no nagging itch for research he may well have used his considerable gifts to better advantage as a regional physician than he would have done in a teaching hospital, but the failure wounded him deeply. Plans for a medical faculty in Durham probably never had much chance of success and, since Newcastle opened in 1984 a new medical school too big for its needs, a competitor 15 miles away could only have been a planner’s disaster. His memorial is likely to be Dryburn Hospital but, apart from his family, his most rewarding happiness probably came from teaching medical students and young graduates; they liked him very much indeed.

HA Dewar

[Brit.med.J., 1986,293,144; The Times, 29 May 1986]

(Volume VIII, page 351)

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