Lives of the fellows

James Donald Bell

b.23 March 1935 d.25 July 2000
MB ChB Edin(1958) DCH(1960) MRCP Edin(1966) MRCP(1967) FRCP(1980) FRCP Edin(1983)

Donald Bell was a paediatrician for almost 25 years in Barrow-in-Furness, one of the most isolated units in the UK. He was always very proud of his Scottish roots, although he spent by far the majority of his life in England.

His father was an estate factor who sent Donald to Marlborough where he excelled sufficiently to gain a house scholarship. He then went on to Edinburgh University Medical School as a Vans Dunlop scholar. Whilst in Edinburgh he lodged with a reverend gentleman at 30 George Square in a house which had been previously occupied by Walter Scott. The house had a Bechstein piano and this was to prove both a distraction to his medical studies and a long term ownership ambition. He rarely went to lectures, preferring to play the piano, and it was to everyone's astonishment that he was one of only eight students in the year who were called for the final medal examination.

Soon after his Edinburgh house jobs he was called up for National Service but instead took a short service commission in the RAMC between 1960 and 1964. Much of this period was spent as medical officer to an experimental rocket range on St Kilda. The very quiet life was interrupted by an emergency when a Spanish fisherman suffered a severe injury in a storm and was landed on St Kilda. Donald patched him up but the fisherman needed specialised help. The commanding officer was persuaded to spend a large part of his meagre budget on an evacuation thus enhancing Donald's negotiating skills with management which were essential later in his career. This episode earned coverage in The Scotsman and The Times and transient fame for Donald.

After an SHO post with John Crofton at the City Hospital in Edinburgh, Donald went to Newcastle where he spent the next eight years training. He met and married his wife Wendy during his army years and her strong roots in Northumberland were influential in the rest of his career.

For 18 months he did full time research on cardiotochography at a time when foetal monitoring was in its infancy. Although he enjoyed the excitement of research, writing it up was not his forte. However, his research was presented to a study group of the RCOG and amongst his visual aids was a photograph of a road sign on the military road between Newcastle and Carlisle indicating 'severe dip'. Anyone who has travelled this road will know that any baby suffering a severe dip in their heart rate of this magnitude needed urgent help.

The last 25 years of his life were spent as consultant paediatrician in South West Cumbria where he was more than 100 miles and three hours from the nearest hospitals in Manchester or Newcastle. As a regular attender at the Manchester Paediatric Club and the North of England Paediatric Society he was able to maintain contact with two regional sets of paediatricians. He was much loved by children, their parents and the nursing staff.

Donald always had interests outside medicine. He was keen on, and quite good at, golf and he thoroughly enjoyed skiing. Playing the piano was always his escape and he eventually achieved his lifetime ambition - going one better and buying not a Bechstein but a Steinway for which his house in Barrow had to be extended. He also enjoyed poetry during his later years. A bon viveur he loved to entertain and be entertained and he was aided and abetted by his brother-in-law Michael, a wine merchant and organiser of a gourmet travelling club.

In later years he and Wendy became absorbed in their garden in Ulverston. His last project was to create a lily pond and the first lily flowered on the day of his funeral, a gloriously sunny day. Coronary heart disease did not stop his enjoyment of life even though it limited his activities. Donald was supported throughout his life by a very strong family. He left his wife, two sons and a daughter, and of course the Steinway.

A W Craft

[Brit.med.J.,321,2000,769]

(Volume XI, page 49)

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