Lives of the fellows

Thomas Stephen Low-Beer

b.25 February 1932 d.21 November 2001
BM BCh Oxon(1960) MA(1960) MRCP(1965) FRCP(1980)

Tom Low-Beer, a former ‘illegal immigrant’, was a man of great energy, enthusiasm and charm. This combination of gifts often enabled him to overcome obstacles that defeated lesser persons, whilst sometimes causing turbulence in the surrounding waters. He was born in Brno, in the former Czechoslovakia, to a prosperous Jewish family. His early life was comfortable, but that all changed with the Nazi threat. He left Czechoslovakia in 1938 and spent some time in Switzerland and a year in France, resulting in a love of that country and a perfect French accent. He came to Britain in 1940 ahead of his parents on his elder sister’s passport, posing as her son. After the family was re-established here he had a formal British education at Gordonstoun; Kurt Hahn, its founder, was a friend of his mother. After school, he did National Service in the RAMC from 1951 to 1953.

He proceeded to medical studies, doing pre-clinicals at New College, Oxford, and then to the Middlesex Hospital for his clinical years, qualifying in 1960. After house jobs at the Middlesex and Addenbrooke’s, he became a medical registrar with Frank McGown at Romford and went on to Bristol, passing the MRCP in 1965. Subsequently, he became a lecturer in Alan Read’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol. IX, p.440] department of medicine at Bristol University and the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Besides clinical work in general medicine and gastroenterology and teaching, he became heavily involved in research, notably in the newly advancing fields of gall bladder disease and bile salt metabolism. To pursue this path further he spent a most productive period from 1966 to 1969 at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, contributing to many published papers.

On returning to Bristol, he continued his research and clinical work. He formed strong links with overseas visitors to the department of medicine and, with his generous manner, helped introduce these and some political refugees to life and culture in Britain. He formed a particularly strong and enduring bond with Eru Pomare, who was to become the first Maori professor of medicine in Wellington, New Zealand. They published numerous research papers together and, at Ru’s invitation, Tom spent an enjoyable six months as an exchange consultant in Wellington from 1985 to 1986.

In 1975, he moved to Birmingham on his appointment as consultant physician and gastroenterologist to Selly Oak Hospital. This was very different from the research-orientated academic role in Bristol as Selly Oak was a typical district general hospital with a heavy clinical workload and no established research base. It was in this year that the first firms of undergraduate students from Birmingham Medical School ventured out from the traditional teaching hospitals to Selly Oak. This was an immediate success, in no small measure due to Tom, with the students favouring the less formal approach to teaching, the enthusiasm of the clinicians and the wealth of clinical cases. Tom’s passion for teaching, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, was proverbial. He was appointed to the position of honorary senior clinical lecturer in medicine to the University of Birmingham.

At Selly Oak, Tom established an excellent clinical service with the highest standards, winning the affection of his patients. Nothing was too much effort for him on his patients’ behalf. He was thorough and energetic, leaving few stones unturned. In his concern to obtain the best for his patients, it has to be said that he sometimes strained the available resources. In his practice there was little time for ‘routine’, all cases were ‘urgent’! Although initially there were few opportunities for research, Tom forged links with the university and encouraged his juniors to become involved in writing papers, making the most of the meagre resources available. Many of these doctors have continued with research and academic work initially stimulated by Tom.

One of his achievements was to re-structure the chaotic notes system of Selly Oak Hospital. Another, on a grander scale, was the conception and establishment of a department of rheumatology with the foundation of a chair. In collaboration with the GU medicine department, he established the in-patient facility for patients with HIV. In 1980, he was awarded the FRCP. His interest in people, particularly those from abroad, suited him well for his appointment to the university position of tutor for overseas students, a role that he fulfilled with distinction. Although he had a modest private medical practice, his concern was for the NHS and to this end he was a member and later honorary treasurer of the National Health Service Consultants Association, a non-party political organisation established when there was thought to be a serious risk of the NHS being dismembered.

He retired from Selly Oak Hospital in February 1997, but continued to be active in research, some private practice and in his role with overseas students. He was still supervising research fellows at the time of his death in November 2001.

Outside of medicine, his activities and interests were wide and varied. He travelled extensively and had a natural talent for languages, speaking French and German fluently. He was a competent musician, playing the flute, and enjoying concerts and the opera. He was always an avid reader and an art lover, stunning his fellow undergraduates at Oxford with his breadth of knowledge in this field. After retirement, he was able to pursue his love of art more extensively and trained as a guide to the collections of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the University of Birmingham’s splendid gallery. He was actively involved with the Friends of the Barber and organised an excellent tour to Prague on their behalf. Another venture in retirement was the planting of a wood containing 2,000 trees near Bromyard in Herefordshire. To further this activity he went on a course to become a chainsaw operator – he was by far the oldest participant.

He was not a keen sportsman, but played rugby for his college and enjoyed skiing. He was an enthusiastic and vigorous walker, both in towns and in the countryside. Indeed, he had been on a nine-hour trek over the Drakensberg mountains and into Lesotho only days before his tragic death in a car accident whilst on holiday in South Africa.

Tom was immensely sociable, enjoying good food and wine. He was a generous host and a raconteur of distinction. It was always a pleasure to be invited the elegant home that he and his wife Ann (née Smith) established in Weoley Park Road, Birmingham. Tom and Ann married in 1965 and had two sons, Daniel, a global health worker, and Jacob, who has followed his father into medicine.

Roy Cockel

[Brit.med.J, 2002,324,175]

(Volume XI, page 349)

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