Lives of the fellows

Robert Joseph Patrick Skelly

b.12 March 1925 d.7 November 1981
MB BCh BAO UC Dubl(1949) MD NUI(1955) MRCPI(1957) MRCP(1962) FRCPI(1971) FRCP(1974)

Robert Skelly, consultant physician to Whiteabbey Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, lecturer in medicine to the dental faculty of Queen’s University, Belfast, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 56.

Bob Skelly was born in Dublin and received his early education at O’Connel’s School, Dublin. He entered University College Dublin by scholarship and graduated in medicine in 1949. After early junior appointments in Dublin, London and Oxford, he served for some years as a senior registrar in medicine at the Belfast City Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. In 1963 he was appointed consultant physician to Whiteabbey Hospital.

Skelly was, above all, a man of vision. His appointment to Whiteabbey Hospital seemed to his contemporaries an inauspicious start to a consultant career for a young man of his promise and ambition. The hospital had enjoyed a high local reputation as the leading tuberculosis sanatorium in Northern Ireland and was in the process of conversion to a small district hospital. Skelly, as its first general physician, was alone in recognizing that the hospital had the potential to be, irrespective of size, a centre of excellence. His life’s work was to make the dream a reality, and in this he succeeded. He established links with the Royal Victoria Hospital and in due course became a member of its staff. Eventually he built up a department of medicine which embraced general medicine, respiratory medicine, cardiology, gastroenterology and geriatrics, an enterprise in which he was joined by three other consultant colleagues. Although he would have described himself as a general physician his main interest was in diabetes. Realizing that high quality junior medical staff were crucial to the success of the unit, he set about recruiting them, largely by the excellence of his postgraduate and undergraduate teaching and by the high success rate achieved by his pupils in the membership examination. There was no lack of applicants for his junior posts and in time he got the best.

He was a naturally gifted teacher, widely read not only in medicine but in the English classics. Fluent both with tongue and pen, he used the English language as only one who loves it can. His simplicity of address and his logical approach to every clinical problem impressed itself on a whole generation of Belfast medical students and graduates. In due course he was appointed lecturer in medicine to the dental faculty of Queen’s University, a post which gave him more pleasure than any other which he held. He took a deep personal interest in all his students and in turn he earned both their respect and affection.

Bob Skelly was a friendly man. He had a cheerful word for everyone whom he met, and in this he recognized no distinction of rank or status. Even in Northern Ireland he was totally incapable of grasping the distinctions which other men make in respect of nationality, race or creed. It was therefore completely natural for him to extend the right hand of fellowship to all the overseas graduates who came to the hospital. He was like a father to them, celebrating with them in the good times, supporting them in the bad times and furthering their careers in every way he could. Junior medical staff are always perceptive, often harsh but usually correct in the judgements which they pass on their seniors. His junior staff pronounced judgement shortly and succinctly in one simple inscription on his wreath — ‘To a Great Physician’.

Honours deservedly came his way. He was for a time chairman of his area medical advisory committee, and as such had a seat on the area health and social services board and formed part of its area executive team. Distance prevented his achieving the prominence in College affairs which might have been his lot had he been resident in mainland Britain. For all that, he maintained a keen interest in College affairs and in its personalities, and he served as a regional specialty adviser in Northern Ireland.

Outwardly a gregarious person, exuding gaiety, charm and wit, he was beneath it all a sensitive and deeply reflective man who, whilst enjoying the company of others, could be equally content with his own. In truth, he was a sincerely religious man. His faith was deep rooted but he was the most tolerant of men and stoutly upheld the right of others to differ. It has been said that the difference between a religious and an irreligious man is that the religious man knows that he is making a journey whereas the irreligious man denies that there is any journey to be made. Robert Skelly knew with certainty that he was making a journey. Both for him and for those fortunate enough to be tramping along at his side it was a happy, carefree one.

WHM

[Brit.med.J., 1982, 284, 1339]

(Volume VII, page 539)

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