Lives of the fellows

Robert Kingston Knight

b.1 October 1932 d.31 December 2005
MB BS Lond(1955) MRCP(1960) FRCP(1972)

Bob Knight was the last of the great general physicians of Guy's Hospital. He had a special interest in respiratory diseases and oncology, and made important contributions to research into the treatment of breast cancer. He was also an authority on Keats, who had trained at Guy's.

Bob Knight was the son of a Swansea general practitioner and he used to marvel at the contrast between his father's single-handed practice and the modern heavily staffed practices of today. His father, convinced, albeit mistakenly, that he himself had only a short time to live, encouraged his son to proceed with his career without delay. Bob Knight duly entered Guy's Hospital Medical School direct from St Edward's School, Oxford, in 1949, just two days before his 17th birthday.

He qualified at Guy's in 1955 and, after house jobs, did National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Libya as a regimental medical officer and medical officer to the British Military Hospital in Tripoli. After leaving the Army as a captain and post-registration appointments at the Whittington and Brompton hospitals, he returned to Guy's for research and registrar appointments. He became clinical tutor and senior lecturer in 1967 and consultant physician to Guy's Hospital in 1968.

He was a dedicated teacher, his interest in medical education having its roots in the United States, where he spent a year at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The award of a Commonwealth Fund scholarship had enabled him to visit 12 American medical schools, which provided the basis for a report in The Lancet in 1964. As clinical tutor, he introduced a variety of innovative teaching techniques at Guy's which were well ahead of their time. Students were particularly eager to be on his firm and the best ones would choose to be his houseman. His keen interest in student affairs extended to the Guy's Gazette and for some time he was chairman of the Gazette committee.

He was a superb clinician, a brilliant diagnostician and his patients adored him for his sensitivity and compassion. When his colleagues, or members of their families, were unwell, they would turn to Bob – no higher compliment can be paid to a physician.

He was hugely knowledgeable about the history of Guy's and its great physicians and surgeons of the past. His historical tours of the hospital and its surroundings were renowned and immensely popular. His knowledge of John Keats was so profound that in 1995 he was invited to address The Wordsworth Trust. The poet was also the subject of his Fison Memorial lecture in 1995 and Keats Memorial lecture in 1999.

The last few years of Bob Knight's career at Guy's were tumultuous times politically for the hospital and its very existence was under threat. He spent countless hours leading the Save Guy's Campaign with a Churchillian fervour. During this period, he met many members of Parliament, including the then leader of the opposition. Our future prime minister was later heard to remark of him 'He's not your usual rebel, is he?'

Bob Knight retired from Guy's Hospital in 1997, but demands on his time did not diminish at all. In 1998 he organised a highly successful conference to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Hodgkin and edited the published proceedings. He pursued his long-standing interest in life assurance medicine as a director of the Wesleyan Assurance Society and chief medical officer to Hanover Re (UK). He was a medical examiner and adviser on miners' compensation claims.

Bob Knight was a Winnie the Pooh enthusiast and, in retirement, applied this interest to the serious matter of medical research. At Pooh Bridge in Ashdown Forest, where the game of Pooh Sticks had first been played, he assembled a team of researchers to conduct an intriguing experiment. Seeking an explanation on why repeated transient ischaemic attacks often seem to have similar clinical characteristics, pine cones were dropped into the stream. They were observed to aggregate at certain limited destinations with a high degree of statistical significance, providing a plausible hypothesis that a similar process could account for the fate of emboli released into the bloodstream. This amusing and germane work was published in the 2004 Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal.

Bob Knight had a brilliant sense of humour and as a raconteur he was second to none. He possessed a phenomenal number of anecdotes and would regularly enliven an occasion with one or two well-chosen examples or, if the truth be told, probably rather more. He always relished a good dinner in the company of friends and, if the occasion permitted a good sing-song, so much the better.

It is not possible to overstate just how important a figure Bob Knight was at Guy's. He inspired all those who worked with him. The most senior members of staff of the hospital and medical school frequently sought his advice and would regard it as paramount. He was always so friendly and cheerful. Many have remarked that just being in his presence would uplift the spirits.

In his medical student days, Guy's Hospital was a major force in the world of rugby and its team would feature international players. Bob Knight's excellence at the game earned him the position of scrum half in the first XV and he was good enough to be invited for a trial with Surrey. He remained passionate about the game. Sport continued to be important throughout his life. He ran two London marathons in his fifties, recording highly respectable times, and enjoyed skiing annually until the last year of his life.

His sudden death was a tremendous shock for his family and friends. Thankfully, he had enjoyed prior good health and, mercifully, when the end came, it was swift and without suffering. The large congregation at the service of thanksgiving for his life in Southwark Cathedral was a fitting tribute to the great affection and esteem in which this great physician was held. He is survived by his wife Marion, whom he married in 1964, his sons Stewart and Gavin, and grandson Caspar.

Robert Rubens

[Brit.med.J.,2006,332,917-918;GKTGazette February/March 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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