Lives of the fellows

Arthur Gordon Beckett

b.6 August 1920 d.12 October 1989
MA BM BCh Oxon(1945) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1971)

Gordon Beckett was a Yorkshireman, born in Barnsley. Despite that town’s pretty well total devotion to coal mining, his personal background was rather different. His father, Walter Beckett, was a company secretary; his mother Nellie, née Smith, came from a home with retail business interests. It is therefore not surprising that a combination of personal aspiration and Gordon’s own abilities took him educationally through the best local school and from there, arguably at least, to one of the better universities - Oxford. At school he had already shone, not only academically but also in two of the preoccupations one would be bound to expect of a Barnsley lad, soccer and - such was the pre-eminence of Yorkshire in those days - cricket. Although he kept up some sporting activities in his early undergraduate days at Merton College this was during the first years of the second world war and his sporting distinction was not apparent until he went on to The London Hospital to do his clinicals. There he brilliantly impressed from many standpoints, including the captaincy of the hospital soccer team and by obtaining house jobs on graduation with two of London’s most distinguished clinicians.

After a short period at the Brompton, Gordon became RMO at the Royal Free’s Liverpool Road branch, thus beginning an association with the hospital that lasted over 40 years, interrupted only by National Service as a medical specialist in the RAF and by two years as registrar at Addenbrooke’s. Although he was later appointed consultant physician to the Central Middlesex Group of hospitals, in his earlier days Gordon always seemed to steer his career back to the Royal Free or its associated hospitals. When a senior registrar there he became particularly interested in diabetes, under the direction of Una Ledingham [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V., p.241]. Although his clinical activity became more and more focused on diabetes he had already made significant contributions to developing, for example, the use of ACTH in ulcerative colitis and in the recognition of acute alcoholic hepatitis.

He was appointed consultant physician to the Royal Free in 1965. The eye problems of diabetes led him to a life-long interest in medical ophthalmology and he complemented his general medical appointments with work as a physician to Moorfields and, with Simon Behrman [Munk’s Roll, VoLVIII., p.23] and Gerry James, he helped to initiate the Eye Physic Club which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. He was also active in the very earliest days of the BMA’s anti-smoking campaign. Gordon gave sterling service to the Royal Free in the administrative field, particularly in those areas where a painstaking review of facts was important prior to committee meetings - such as those dealing with drugs and medical records. Early in his consultant career he was chairman of the New End Hospital medical committee but later on he was precluded from the cut and thrust of active committee work by increased difficulty in hearing.

Gordon’s progressive deafness interfered with music, a major interest outside medicine. Fortunately, with the advent of electronic instruments, his pianistic skills continued to give him great satisfaction. Perhaps because some of the pleasure of the spoken word was denied him, the written word meant a great deal. He was a fervent reader and a great crossword puzzle addict, on one occasion he won The Times Christmas Jumbo crossword. His other interests were also visually orientated; he was a keen photographer and philatelist.

Ornithology, an earlier passionate interest, was to be progressively denied to him in the face of the incapacity which resulted from the mysterious illness which clouded his last years. So protean were its manifestations that Gordon came under the professional care of many of his former colleagues. He never wavered in his fortitude and was extremely grateful for all their efforts. In addition, they were always supported by his wife, Dorothy, who had been a nursing sister at The London; her devotion and her professional skill were blessings to him.

When one met Gordon in these latter times there were often difficulties in communication and his hearing problem had been compounded by worsening sight - although this was subsequently alleviated by modern cataract surgery. Whatever the difficulties, however, the characteristic features of Gordon’s personality remained; whatever emerged from his natural diffidence, with never a hint of cant or cynicism, were factually based opinions, a fellow interest and friendliness.

J D Abrams

[The Lancet, 1990,337,404]

(Volume IX, page 37)

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