Lives of the fellows

Claude Scott Nicol

b.23 February 1914 d.17 February 1984
CBE(1977) TD MRCS LRCP(1936) MB BS Lond(1938) MRCP(1946) MD(1946) FRCP(1962)

Claude Nicol was born in Dublin, the son of Claude Gordon Nicol, barrister-at-law and physician. He was educated at Harrow and St Mary’s Hospital, London. He was a postgraduate student at St John’s College, Oxford, working under Howard Florey, later Lord Florey [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.178]. After qualifying at St Mary’s, and before moving to Oxford, ‘Nic’ held house appointments in obstetrics and gynaecology, medicine, surgery, neurology, and dermatology and venereology. While in Oxford he met his future wife, Janet Bosworth Smith, an undergraduate at St Anne’s. There is no doubt that this was a whirlwind romance, as when they married in 1939 they had known each other for only three months, and indeed had become engaged three days after their first meeting. Their marriage was outstandingly happy.

When the second world war began Nicol, already a keen territorial, was soon called up. He had a distinguished war record in the RAMC which included service at St Nazaire, where he played a leading part in the Lancastria rescue operation in 1940, as a result of which many lives were saved. He specialized in venereology, eventually becoming adviser in the subject to the Eighth Army. On returning to civilian life he continued in the specialty, as well as resuming his pre-war interest in the TA. In 1947 he was appointed to Bart’s, where he ran the department until 1974, and then became consultant to the London Hospital in 1950. He left the London to take over the clinic at St Thomas’s in 1956, taking early retirement in 1976 due to increasing disability from Parkinson’s disease. He fought this with characteristic undemonstrative courage right to the end.

In the TA, he commanded 217 (London) General Hospital and rose to the rank of colonel. He continued to maintain his interest in the TA after his retirement, and was appointed guest of honour at an RAMC dinner only a year before his death. In 1967 he was appointed an honorary physician to the Queen.

At Bart’s and St Thomas’s he built up two superbly organized departments and trained many future consultants. He was uncannily good at spotting promising juniors, and was a master of the chess moves involved in hospital careers. Outwardly he was a modest man, almost shy, but combined this with an unusual degree of determination, and he could be formidable at appointment committees. Nic’s approach to his work was undoubtedly formal but he was a very good man at a party as well, whether this was in the Lydia department at St Thomas’s or at his home in Hampstead. He would often be seen talking to his registrar’s wives and the conversation would always include his plans for their husband’s future career; all this in his marvellous, inimitable drawl.

He was an outstanding clinician due to an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject, but perhaps even more to his mastery of differential diagnosis. When seeing a patient he was imperturable, and his characteristic thoroughness was unaffected either by the time of day or by how busy the clinic happened to be. He expected his junior staff to be as painstaking as he was himself, and he had an uncanny knack, simply from seeing a patient’s notes, of spotting when things looked as if they might be going wrong. He had absolutely no time for hurried or skimped work and his own scholarly clinical notes, some of them dating back many years, remained a pleasure to read. By contrast, he did not waste unnecessary words with general practitioners and hospital colleagues, and his splendidly terse short reports were a welcome relief from the voluminous accounts which became fashionable.

His influence in genito-urinary medicine spread far beyond Bart’s and St Thomas’s, and he was secretary - and later president - of the Medical Society for the Study of Venereal Diseases. He was appointed consultant venereologist to the Army in 1967, and in the following year became adviser in the specialty to the Ministry of Health. His reputation was worldwide, perhaps especially in the USA where he had spent a year as a Fellow in medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, from 1949-50, working with the late Earle Moore. He was also secretary- general and later a vice-president of the International Union against Venereal Diseases and Treponematoses. During the ’60s and ’70s he visited many European centres, and went to India for the British Council.

Nicol published a considerable amount of original research and his book Venereal Diseases, London, Cassell, written with Ambrose King, and later also with Philip Rodin, was first published in 1964, becoming a standard work. In addition, he contributed sections to Price’s Practice of Medicine, Roxburgh’s Common Skin Diseases, and several other textbooks. He examined for the diploma in venereology for the Society of Apothecaries.

Undoubtedly his greatest contribution to the development of genito-urinary medicine was his special interest in the training of junior staff, even more important than his outstanding clinical, teaching and administrative abilities. His open office door became quite famous and there was often a little queue of people seeking his help on one subject or another. Here again he demonstrated his enviable quality of refusing to be hurried and one could always be certain of sage advice given with avuncular charm. Inevitably, with so many people seeking his opinion, he built up a considerable private practice, but I often felt that this was to some extent defensive and that he derived his real pleasure from hospital medicine. Indeed, he would often advise patients wishing to see him privately to attend his department instead.

As a young man he had been a good games player and played squash for United Hospitals, as well as occasionally representing Oxford University. In his later years it was his wife and family who gave him his greatest pleasure and interest but he continued to be fascinated by travel, and particularly archaeology. He loved India, and it was during a visit there with his wife that he died suddenly, just a few days before his seventieth birthday.

MAE Symonds

[, 1984,288,1387; Lancet, 1984,1,692; The Times, 24 Feb 1984; St Barrs Hosp.J., 1974,138]

(Volume VIII, page 362)

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