Lives of the fellows

Edward Kenyon Blackburn

b.12 January 1918 d.25 August 1995
MB ChB Leeds(1942) DRCOG(1944) MD(1945) FRFPS(1947) MRCP Glasg(1962) FRCPath(1963) FRCP Glasg(1964) FINucE(1970) MRCP(1971) FRCP(1976) Hon MD Sheffield(1983)

Edward Kenyon Blackburn embarked on the main part of his professional life just as the National Health Service was beginning. He made two important contributions to British medicine during the first decade of the NHS. He was one of a group of five Sheffield pathologists who discussed at length the medico-political problems of their expanding specialty which at that time had no elected representatives where decisions were being made. They drafted, printed, and submitted their conclusions in the form of a document which the historian C J Foster has described as almost a blue-print for the foundation of the Royal College of Pathologists ten years later. His other major contribution was his role in developing an active centre for haemophilia and allied bleeding disorders at Sheffield. At that time there were only three centres in England and Wales - Manchester, Oxford and Sheffield -recognized as providing clinical care with laboratory support to a top standard day and night throughout the year. Patients could turn up on their own initiative as soon as they recognized the onset of a bleed, thus lessening their disability.

Eddie Blackburn’s parents lived in Morley, Yorkshire, where his father, Victor Wood Blackburn, was a schoolmaster. Eddie attended the local grammar school and proceeded to Leeds University as a Kitchener Scholar to study medicine. He failed medical entry for the armed forces, but spent a period as RAF civilian station medical officer in Lincolnshire. He sat and passed the medical examination of the then Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and decided to concentrate on the developing specialty of haematology, although in those days he had to devise his own training programme. Blackburn always stressed that he was a clinician and that the interests of haematology were best served by a thorough knowledge of both clinical and laboratory medicine. He later exerted his influence in this direction as an examiner for the Royal College of Pathologists for which he was chairman of the panel of examiners in haematology from 1970 to 1980 and was elected vice-president from 1974 to 1977.

In 1951 he was promoted to the position of consultant at the United Sheffield Hospitals, ultimately at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital. He published or shared publication of over 90 papers. He was involved in numerous committees, both locally and nationally, but had a special affection for the Association of Clinical Pathologists of which he became president in 1973. He was a founder member of the British Society for Haematology and in 1965 was its fifth president and was on the editorial board of the British Journal of Haematology from 1968 to 1978. Sheffield University appointed him professor associate in haematology in 1971 and MD honoris causa in 1983 when the citation made mention of his role as an examiner in medical centres elsewhere. Blackburn received the Macfarlane award of the National Haemophilia Society in 1980 in recognition of his continuing personal and organizational contribution to the Sheffield centre.

Rather than any academic approach it was Eddie’s personality and flair for getting on with people which so impressed those who met him. His impact on outsiders was accentuated perhaps by his pride in his Yorkshire speech and his genuine concern for the welfare of others. Despite his professional ambitions he showed a refreshing absence of social pretence. He drove an outdated pale green Ford car for many years where the very body-work smelt permanently of cheroot smoke and ash went into a brown tin. Even when his consultant peers complained bitterly about the way he was pushing his own case on behalf of his department one never heard Eddie answering back with a personal retort and this attribute must have helped him through committee stages. He had an unusually good memory for people and things and within minutes he could retrieve an original reprint from his filing system to support what might seem a nonsense claim. In conversation he discussed work with enthusiasm, preferring that to more philosophical topics and he conversed in a way which encouraged free talk, even from a relative stranger. This conversational manner led to his skill in testing the water for new ideas on medico-political issues before others around him had even grasped the relevance.

From 1969 he was head of the newly initiated Sheffield University department of haematology. He was not himself a particularly original investigator but he actively encouraged research work in the blood coagulation field and in any subject related to haematology.

During the last four years of his life he laboured against the after-effects of an embolic stroke following endocarditis, but, with the considerable help of his wife Elizabeth, whom he married in 1943, he remained mobile and was usually found by his visitors immersed in medical journals or College bulletins or writing some pressure group letter in relation to his current enthusiasm. He died from a pancreatic malignancy.

H T Swan

[Brit.med.J., 1995,31 1,1294]

(Volume X, page 37)

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