Lives of the fellows

Geoffrey Leon Bolt

b.2 July 1922 d.11 November 2001
VRD(1962) MB BS Lond(1945) MRCP(1963) FRCP(1975)

Geoffrey Bolt was inspired to become a doctor by a lecture given by Wilfred Grenfell, founder of the Grenfell Mission Hospital in Newfoundland. His restless personality, lifelong love of the sea and unquenchable thirst for knowledge beyond medicine ensured an unconventional pathway to his appointment as physician in King's Lynn.

He was born in Surrey. Deciding on a career in medicine, he entered medical school at the London Hospital during the Second World War. After house jobs at the London he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon lieutenant and spent two years at the South Atlantic station, in Simonstown, South Africa. He remained in the RNVR until he retired and was awarded the volunteer reserve decoration.

In 1950 he returned to the London as a demonstrator in anatomy, briefly considered the teaching of anatomy or surgery as a career but then entered general practice in east Norfolk, a six year period, interrupted by six months as a medical officer on an Antarctic whaling expedition.

At the age of 37 he embarked on his final career as a hospital physician, obtaining the MRCP and his board of trade yachtmaster's certificate in the same year. He worked as a registrar, first in Bath then at the London Hospital, for Horace Evans [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.123] (of whose ophthalmoscope he was later to become the proud owner) before becoming a senior registrar in Colchester.

His love of Norfolk, of clinical medicine and of the sea, all found natural expression in his appointment as consultant physician at King's Lynn in 1967, shortly after sailing in a transatlantic race from Bermuda to Copenhagen.

During the subsequent period of rapid expansion of the hospital in the 1970s he was involved in the appointment of many new colleagues, determined to develop a modern service for an expanding community.

He was fond of saying that he would only appoint colleagues who were more clever than he was, but this was somewhat disingenuous and his reputation as a consummate clinician and brilliant and intuitive diagnostician remained unchallenged.

He particularly enjoyed solving problems without the aid of investigations, early triumphs being the diagnosis of favism in a local farmer and a case of thallium poisoning. Ever the showman, he delighted in sharing such tales with suitably impressed colleagues.

In 1977, seeking a new challenge, Geoffrey took unpaid leave for six months to be locum physician at a Grenfell Hospital in Newfoundland, founded by the man who had inspired him as a boy, returning to King's Lynn reinvigorated.

Geoffrey enjoyed bedside teaching and established a link with the students of the Royal Free Hospital. They benefited from his excellent teaching but, in common with his junior doctors, they sometimes found his exacting standards difficult to meet and quailed before his astringent criticism. In fact both in the hospital and outside he could be charming and endearing one moment, acerbic and truculent the next.

His contribution to the general life of the hospital throughout his career was unique. He was responsible for the planting of an avenue of walnut trees at the hospital entrance, for the acquisition of a plane tree sapling that had been grown from a seed from the tree beneath which Hippocrates was said to have taught and for the seeding of an area of wild flowers in the hospital grounds.

In 1979 a group from the hospital was persuaded to take part in a weekend trip on the training ship 'Royalist'. Geoffrey revelled in the spectacle of some consultant colleagues in the ship's rigging and others cleaning the heads. Such activities enormously enhanced hospital morale.

He also believed that professional people had a duty to share in the cultural and social life of the community and his personal engagement with the life of King's Lynn grew from this conviction. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the civic life of the town, its history, buildings and traditions, expressed through membership of many societies, including the Civic Society and the Preservation Trust. The Horticultural Society provided an outlet for his talent for the making of pickles and bread. For several years he served as vice-chairman of the King's Lynn Festival of the Arts.

Love of the sea determined his long association with the local sea cadets, culminating in the presidency of the branch. He was also a member of the King's Lynn Conservancy Board (harbour authority) and chairman of the pilotage committee.

Although in an age of rapid change he came to enjoy the role of 'Luddite' in the hospital and although time often proved his scepticisms to have been justified, he eventually found the process of unremitting change depressing. Furthermore, his latter years were beset by illness and too often he visited the hospital as a patient. During one of these episodes he was described by a fellow patient as 'the man in pyjamas who came to make a diagnosis when the doctors couldn't'.

His deafness was a particular burden and conversation at lunch with members of the local retired consultants' walking group tended to involve the whole pub. But to the end he retained huge and infectious enthusiasm for life, to the end finding time to study classical Greek for which he had a great affinity, delighting in his locally acquired title of 'ailurophile', or lover of cats, a succession of which dominated life in his kitchen.

His love of words and etymology led to a longstanding correspondence with Philip Howard of The Times who wrote that he regarded Geoffrey as his 'guru' in matters medical and nautical.

It was perhaps typical that in his final illness, a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, he directed the proceedings, made his own diagnosis, found, in conversation in the accident and emergency department, that he had an acquaintance in common with the admitting Nigerian SHO, and predicted his own demise.

Rosemary A Mulligan

(Volume XI, page 66)

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