Lives of the fellows

Robert Charles Stirling Benson

b.22 August 1915 d.16 May 1986
MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BS Lond(1939) MRCP(1946) FRCP(1969)

While on the golf course at Blakeney, Norfolk, Robert Benson felt faint, lay down, and quickly passed away as a result of a heart attack. If he could have chosen the manner of his going that is roughly what he would have opted for; golf was one of his favourite pastimes. Blakeney, a beautiful flint and brick village on the fine but austere north coast of Norfolk, was the place he chose for his retirement, a place where he had made some close friends and passed several exceptionally happy years. A heart attack was the old enemy he had grappled with in the lives of others for most of his professional career; an enemy that had had a silent dig at him some ten years previously.

Robert Benson was born in South Australia, where his father was a doctor. He was educated at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, but his entire medical education took place in England and he never returned to Australia for any spell of medical practice. The London Hospital was the scene of his medical training, both as student and as junior doctor, and of that great institution he remained an enthusiastic and lifelong admirer. He graduated in 1939, obtained his MRCP London in 1946, and was elected to the Fellowship in 1969. 1947 was a seminal year: he became cardiac registrar to Sir John Parkinson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII,p.443] and William Evans (q.v.) and was awarded the Paterson Research Scholarship. One of the most endearing of Bob’s qualities was the warmth of his feelings, and his loyalty to those whom he liked and admired; his regard tor William Evans amounted almost to veneration. William Evans was internationally renowned and admired as one of the greatest teachers of his generation. There grew up between him and Bob a relationship almost like that of father and son, a relationship which endured for the rest of his life. One of Bob’s delights was to talk about visits he paid to the great man in his retirement in South Wales. Jeeva Raj, once Evan’s registrar at Rush Green Hospital, writes: ‘In his book Journey to Harley Street, [London, Rendal, 1968] William Evans describes the warm friendship and spontaneous loyalty extended to him by his younger colleagues, one of whom was Robert Benson. William Evans writes that they met to reminisce of earlier days, regale him with their diverse activities in the practice of cardiology, and announce their plans and aspirations for the future. These meetings gladdened his heart.’ For Benson’s retirement party Evans wrote a letter which included these words: ‘Among the many registrars who helped me none gave greater service to me and my patients than Robert Benson, none showed greater loyalty to the fundamental clinical data which we collected from our patients, whom we examined together.’

In 1949 Benson became chief clinical assistant to William Evans at the National Heart Hospital, and in the same year took over from him as consultant cardiologist at Oldchurch Hospital. A year later he was appointed consultant physician to Rush Green and Victoria Hospitals.

Bob was responsible for introducing at a local level the early mobilization of patients after myocardial infarction, and later the concept of specialized coronary care. In the 1960s, Ward 5 at Rush Green Hospital became a coronary care unit under his directorship. It increased to seven beds, making it one of the largest in the NE Thames Region, and it included a laboratory in which right heart catheterization was carried out. The unit attracted excellent technical, nursing and junior medical staff, some of whom went on to careers in cardiology, and it remains an enduring monument to Bob’s professional achievements. He was open to new ideas and was quick to introduce worthwhile ones, such as continuous ECG monitoring, treadmill ECG testing, and 72 hour ECG tape recording and analysis. But as Jeeva Raj says: ‘...he always reminded us not to be carried away by technological advances in cardiology lest scientific curiosity should reach a point of sin’. He was elected a member of the British Cardiac Society in 1952, and was a founder member of the Junior Cardiac Club in London. He was a regular attender at cardiac meetings. In 1956, in the British Heart Journal, 18, p.529-543, he published jointly with J F Smith a paper on cardiac amyloidosis.

Benson had admirable teaching and training abilities, and when he knew that a young doctor or other member of his staff was working reliably and loyally, under his direction, he became an enthusiastic adviser and supporter. He felt the same about his patients. But he reacted in a somewhat different fashion to anyone displaying what were to him less desirable characteristics. He demanded obedience as if he were commander of a ship; which may have been part of his nature. This was strongly reinforced by his wartime experience in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was at sea in the Western Approaches Atlantic during the worst period of the war, from 1940-41, and later he was principal medical officer on an armed merchant cruiser in the Pacific. At the time of demobilization he held the rank of surgeon lieutenant commander, RNVR.

He undoubtedly had qualities of leadership; he was respected and admired by a loyal band of medical, nursing and paramedical colleagues. But there was a darker side to those same qualities: he could not bear to be thwarted, or even disagreed with. In this respect his inflexibility resulted in some hurtful, even broken, human relationships which he could not or would not seek to mend.

In 1948 he married Inger Kristine, a Norwegian by birth, and there were two sons and a daughter of the marriage. The marriage was dissolved in 1974.

JR Billinghurst
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1986,292,1679]

(Volume VIII, page 24)

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