Lives of the fellows

Eric Walter Skipper

b.11 September 1904 d.1 October 1987
MRCS LRCP(1926) MB BS Lond(1927) MD(1929) MRCP(1929) FRCP(1950)

Eric Walter Skipper was born in London where his father, Frank John Skipper, was a business director. His mother, Minnie Alice Beale, was the daughter of a furniture manufacturer. He was educated at Parminter’s School and the University of London, pursuing his clinical studies at the London Hospital. In a succession of junior resident posts he came under the stimulating influence of such giants as Russell Brain, later Lord Brain [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.60], Donald Hunter [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.288] and William Evans. After the glamour of the London Hospital, succeeding appointments in Cambridge and south-east London proved dull and disenchanting. Indeed he was not sorry to join the RAMC as a medical specialist at the outbreak of war in 1939. He served as a lieutenant colonel in Northern Ireland and West Africa, and then in France during the Normandy landings, where he was engaged in blood transfusion work. He said afterwards that he would not have missed it for anything but would not like to endure it again. Demobilized in 1946, he was appointed consultant physician at the Royal Infirmary, Sheffield, and Barnsley Beckett Hospital. He became president of the Sheffield Medico-Chirurgical Society - founded more than 100 years ago.

I first met him in Sierra Leone. We were both posted to similar jobs at adjacent West African military hospitals, and struck up a friendship at once. Of serious mein, he was well able to laugh at himself, and other people too if the occasion warranted it. He was, though, a dedicated physician. His special skill and interest lay in the field of diabetes mellitus - while I was particularly interested in the new sounds I heard with my stethescope. But our most entertaining pursuit had nothing to do with medicine or the Army. We examined the new environment, for the ecology of Sierra Leone was different from anything we had known. The mile upon mile of evergreen, leafy forests with exotic blooms aloft, and the wildlife they supported, never failed to interest us. Chattering monkeys, acrobatic to a degree; fast-darting gaily coloured lizards; vibrant and tuneful mosquitoes, and sinuous and often sinister snakes - they were all our constant neighbours. We climbed the hills together, but were disappointed not to have achieved the summit of the Sugar Loaf (2494ft); the undergrowth defeated us. On one of these expeditions, with sweat exuding from every pore, we paused at an unexpected pool which lay at our feet. We would have loved to enter the water but knew of the danger of contracting schistosomiasis from such freshwater snails it might contain. Instead, I introduced the topic of his joining me in Sheffield when the war was over. Sheffield had its points. The neighbouring terrain, on our very doorstep, was none other than the picturesque Peak District. More to the point, perhaps, we had four longstanding teaching hospitals under the benign governance of the University. Little more was said, and in any case the vacancy had yet to arise. Furthermore, I felt also that the prospect of life in Yorkshire did not appeal to him.

Our ways parted in Sierra Leone as a result of the RAMC system of postings, whereby we were scattered to the various theatres of active service and never with the same personnel. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise, four years after our last meeting, to hear his voice over the telephone. He had been demobilized, was looking for a suitable job and wanted to know all about the Sheffield appointment he had seen advertised in a recent BMJ. Within three or four short weeks, after a brilliant interview, he had the job...

At the Royal Infirmary, some distance away from my hospital, we saw less of each other, but met at clinical meetings and at the Philharmonic Concerts at the City Hall. Socially we made the acquaintance of each other’s wives and families. We each had three children who soon became boisterous friends. After dinner Eric would play the violin, to my accompaniment on my lovely Bluthner. He played with a skill and interpretation that I had never heard or seen in any other amateur. I liked to see him, instrument on high and bow asweep, at the conclusion of a sonata by J S Bach. And then he gave it all up for the pleasure of painting Derbyshire landscapes - an indulgence for which I never forgave him! He was a lover of nature, though he would not have approved of that designation. It gave him pleasure to feed a squirrel out of his hand; it gave him pleasure to converse with the resident owl at the bottom of his garden. He was, indeed, a person.

Many of his former patients in Sheffield, Derbyshire and Barnsley remember the help he gave unstintingly in times of trouble and illness. They speak of him still.

TE Gumpert

[Brit.med.J., 1987,295,1492; Lancet, 1987,2,1348]

(Volume VIII, page 465)

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