Lives of the fellows

Nathaniel Scott Alcock

b.7 March 1909 d.3 July 2006
MB ChB Edin(1931) MCRP(1937) MD(1944) FRCP(1948)

Nathaniel Alcock ‘Barney’ was a neurologist in Devon and Cornwall. Nathaniel is a family name, shared by five generations of the Alcock family before Barney Alcock and by two after him, the earlier generations being a family of doctors dating back to 1800 or earlier. Barney was born at 22 Downshire Hill in London’s Hampstead. Soon after, his father, Nathaniel Henry Alcock, was appointed professor of physiology at McGill University in Montreal and the family moved to Canada. Barney’s father died in 1913 from leukaemia, the result of his pioneering work with X-rays and so, supported financially by friends, his mother, Lilian (Nora Lilian Leopard née Scott), the daughter of Judge Sir John Scott, took her four children to Edinburgh. She obtained work in the Botanic Gardens, round the corner from their home in Inverleith Row. In due course she was to become one of the first women plant pathologists at Edinburgh, Harpenden and Kew.

Barney was educated in Edinburgh at the preparatory school Evelyns, then at Fettes School, and thereafter at the university, where he qualified MB ChB at Edinburgh in 1931. He joined the Officer Training Corps, where he was one of the crew of a horse gun, experience that stood him in good stead during the war. He also rowed for the university in coxed fours.

His first job was as house surgeon at the Cumberland Infirmary at Carlisle (from 1931 to 1932), after which he returned to Edinburgh as house physician at the Royal Infirmary. His interest in neurology took him to the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases at Queen Square, where he held the posts of house physician and resident medical officer and registrar.

In 1937 he obtained the MRCP and in the same year was appointed to the British Postgraduate Medical School, where he was first assistant and RMS neurologist.

At the outbreak of second world war he was posted to Ealing Hospital to undertake medical examinations with the Emergency Medical Service, but this work lasted only six months, during the time of the ‘phoney war’. He was sent to take charge of a neurosis centre in Liverpool and later in Southport, where for six months he cycled to work since he did not have a car. The work involved psychological casualties of war, many of low IQ , who could not cope with modern warfare. Later during the war they formed the Pioneer Corps, the unarmed ‘pick and shovel brigade’.

Then he joined the Royal Air Force and during the war served as Royal Air Force neuropsychiatric specialist and later senior specialist in neurology (from 1941 to 1946). During this time the family moved no fewer than ten times, but nevertheless he proceeded MD in 1944 with a thesis on cerebro-spinal disease and its relation to the optic nerve.

During the war he was posted to Northern Ireland after the Belfast bombing, where he lived with his sister Pat and her husband Angus. The IRA was active. Smuggling was rife, tea being short in neutral Eire and butter in Ulster. His only operational flying was in Catalina Flying Boats, stationed on Loch Erne on anti-submarine patrols. His excellent night vision led to the suggestion he might train as a Mosquito pilot, but he decided against this. He remained in Northern Ireland for a year and then was transferred to RAF Halton in Wendover. Then he was transferred to the London Central Medical Centre at Kelvin House, over the road from the Middlesex Hospital, where for the first time he was exposed to enemy bombing. He recalled that later, at Hatch End, Harrow, a V1 or doodlebug took the slates off the roof and broke the door locks.

He worked at the British Postgraduate Medical School as assistant physician (1946) and planned to emigrate to Australia. However, in August 1947 he was appointed neurologist to the Royal Cornwall Infirmary in Truro and the Prince of Wales Hospital in Plymouth, and was also elected to membership of the Association of British Neurologists (ABN). In January 1948 he was also appointed neurologist to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and Torbay Hospital and in that year he was elected FRCP. For many years a caravan in Cornwall served for family holidays and for overnight stops, since Barney covered the whole of Devon and Cornwall, driving an enormous annual mileage in his Alvis. He continued his appointments at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Torbay Hospital and the North Devon Infirmary in Barnstaple, until his retirement in 1974.

Barney, recognised as a notably handsome man, married Jocelyn Eyres, daughter of the physician Henry Warren Crowe, in July 1938 and they had four children, Nat, Debbie, Jane and Mandy. He bought the Old Rectory at Sowton on the outskirts of Exeter in 1948. During the war the property had been used to store suspect drums of oil and after the war the Church Commissioners sold the property and it was converted to flats. Soon it was wholly a family home again, until 2005 when Barney moved to Warwick to be near his family. Sadly Jocelyn died in 1963 and, in 1977, Barney married Susannah Mary Woodcock, a consultant neurologist in Preston and to whom he proposed on the steps of the Parthenon during an ABN meeting in Athens. They had one son, David. Su continued to work in neurology at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Sadly, in 2004 she also predeceased him.

His interests included home and foreign travel, wine and food, and especially gardening, and the three-acre garden at the Old Rectory provided a wonderful playground successively for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Barney died of old age in his sleep at Warwick Hospital and he was buried at St Michael and All Angels, Sowton, Exeter, alongside Jocelyn and Su.

Christopher Gardner-Thorpe

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List