Lives of the fellows

Donald Robert Coles

b.17 October 1924 d.26 September 2000
MB ChB Bristol(1951) BSc(1953) MD(1956) MRCP(1957) FRCP(1971)

Few of the graduates of the Bristol Medical School of the past 40 years would immediately recognise the name 'Dr Donald Robert Coles.' However, all those graduates would instantly recognise the name 'Bob Coles.' Bob was proud, and rightly so, of his west country origins. Born in Weston-super-Mare, his schooling was dominated by an interest in biology. Already at that stage he showed the experimental imagination that was one day to be employed in a clinical fellowship with the MRC.

On completion of his school days and before those medical ambitions were to be realised, he volunteered for the Royal Navy, where he served as a petty officer in the fleet air arm from 1943 to 1946. With the war over, he entered the Bristol Medical School, from which he qualified with honours in 1951. From there a distinguished academic and clinical career led to his appointment in 1961 as a consultant physician in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. As a consultant Bob was a committed and caring physician. His colleagues and the general practitioners of Bristol have good reason to remember the kindness and skill he afforded their patients until his retirement in 1989.

The many hundreds of students who graduated from the Bristol Medical School in the last forty years remember his influence with gratitude. Those students, including the writer, who worked the medical firms during those years will remember his cheerful enthusiasm for, and his fierce commitment to, their undergraduate training. This commitment, over and above the significant contribution he made to general medicine in the Bristol Royal Infirmary, was exemplified by the 20 years he spent as the clinical dean of the medical faculty. With his personal and professional background he was able to relate to students, and they to him. For the lazy or ineffectual student there was no escape. Criticism when it came was firm and to the point. Similarly, where praise was indicated, this was given without any fear of the recipient developing a false sense of superiority. Bob knew exactly how to pitch the balance between retribution and reward.

He was fearless in his support of the students. Only once did I see this man, normally of impeccable manners and good humour, fly into a rage. That was with a consultant colleague who questioned the importance of undergraduate education in the clinical commitments of the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Needless to say that consultant colleague did not question that importance again, indeed, following a more sedate meeting with Bob, that consultant became one of the foremost advocates for the clinical teaching of undergraduates.

Following qualification in 1951 Bob did his house jobs in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. He afterwards recalled that during that time he was not so much terrified by his own ignorance of medicine, but rather horrified by the ignorance of others who were attempting the then early stages of developing a formal postgraduate education philosophy. Bob used his experiences as a house officer to increasing effect in the then burgeoning world of postgraduate education. This included promoting the idea of pre-registration house officers.

It was assumed by some that such learning as they needed could be obtained by a sort of professional osmosis during their attachment to a firm. As with others, Bob saw the at best insecure and at worst fallacious nature of that assumption.

His total commitment to the educational care of pre-registrafion house officers was underlined during the last ten years of his life when, following his consultant retirement in 1989, he volunteered to work alongside the clinical tutors in the Jenner centre - the postgraduate medical faculty as supervised by the postgraduate medical dean. It is impossible to overstate the contribution Bob made to the careers of all the pre-registration house officers during that period. Because he understood the difficult transition between carefree undergraduate and hard worked and sometimes overburdened pre-registration house officer, he was able to engage their confidence and, through that, smooth the passage from student to doctor. He was shrewd enough to know when to intervene and when to stand back. Because they knew and trusted him the pre-registration house officers could always look to him for advice and support when it was needed. Bob never let them down.

In the practical world of a medical career he showed them how to plan the first stages of their postgraduate training. He taught them how to present their CVs to best effect. He helped them in interview technique. Above all he encouraged them to go out and enjoy their medical lives and, within that, he showed them the instinct that he had found to pass on the teaching of medicine to the next generation of doctors.

Bob was always a Bristol man. He and his wife Ruth, herself a doctor, raised their five children in the city. Their house and its never failing hospitality were known throughout the medical community of Bristol. One of his children qualified in the same medical school and now practises in the city.

Bob had a nice sense of humour. At a personal level I will miss his friendship. I will miss his professional sympathy and personal encouragement. I will miss him always knowing the cricket scores and, by careful manoeuvring of the television set in the Jenner centre, obtaining the maximum exposure of any test match series. He has left behind the legacy of a commitment to undergraduate and postgraduate education which has become an integral part of the Bristol Medical School. This remains, along with his outstanding career as a consultant physician, his memorial.

P J B Smith

[Brit.med.J., 321,2000,1162]

(Volume XI, page 117)

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