Lives of the fellows

Barnett Hilary Bass

b.4 January 1927 d.24 August 2005
MB BS Lond(1952) MD(1952) MRCP(1953) FRCP(1971)

Barnett (Barney) Bass was a consultant chest physician based at Good Hope District General Hospital, Sutton Coldfield, and other north Birmingham hospitals at Tamworth and Lichfield from 1961 until his retirement in 1985. During this time he gained a reputation for being one of the finest teachers of undergraduate medicine in the country.

Barney was born in Cardiff, where his father, Abraham Montague Bass, was a film distributor. The family later moved to Manchester, and Barney received his main education at Manchester Grammar School. He went to Guy’s Hospital Medical School in 1944, where his tall, fair-haired and rather distinguished-looking figure quickly became a familiar sight, and he became known to all and sundry as ‘Barney’. He was soon recognised by staff and fellow students alike to be someone of exceptional ability, and when in 1949 the very first Yale exchange scholarships were announced he was one of the two students selected. He qualified in 1950 and house jobs at Guy’s and then Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge followed. Within three years he had both the MD and MRCP under his belt, and having completed the usual military service as major, medical specialist RAMC, there came further junior posts at the Brompton and University College hospitals. Then he won yet another exchange scholarship to the USA, and returned, this time to New York, in 1956 as a fellow. He was then selected as Donald Hunter’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.288] senior registrar at the London Hospital – a much-coveted appointment.

In 1961 Barney was appointed consultant physician to Good Hope District General Hospital in Sutton Coldfield, and had the distinction of being the youngest consultant in medicine in the entire health service. The hospital was reported to have been in something of a ‘rudimentary state’ at that time, with six wooden post-war huts, no junior staff and no pathology department. Over the following 25 years he and his colleagues succeeded in turning it into a first-rate department of medicine, which became affiliated to the University of Birmingham. As a result, and most importantly for Barney, the hospital now had medical students, for above all he loved teaching, and even when retired it was said of him that he would teach medicine to anyone who would listen! He duly became senior clinical lecturer and tutor, then director of the clinical studies unit at Aston University; a personal chair in respiratory medicine followed.

He was a founder member of the British Thoracic Society, and in due course was elected a Fellow of the College and of the Royal Society of Medicine. His appointment as a liveryman of the Society of Apothecaries (together with the freedom of the City of London with accompanying privileges) gave him particular pleasure. He became professor of medicine to the American University of the Caribbean, wrote numerous papers on a variety of subjects, as well as a couple of textbooks, one of which, Lung function tests: an introduction (London, H K Lewis & Co., 1959), went to four editions and became a standard work. He also wrote a short and most amusing volume of his more light-hearted medical experiences and recollections. It was entitled Tell them it’s been wonderful (Lewes, Book Guild, 2000) – said to have been among the last words of the philosopher Wittgenstein, who during the Second World War had worked as a hospital porter at Guy’s and was someone for whom Barney had always entertained the highest regard.

He had the keenest of minds, which he retained to the end of his days, coupled with a lovely sense of humour and wide-ranging interests which included boating, travel, the theatre and ballet. He was extremely well read, an excellent raconteur and very knowledgeable about classical music (with an especial interest in Mahler and Elgar), as well as traditional jazz.

Barney was married twice, and had two sons, Timothy and Andrew, by his first wife Patricia, also a doctor. This marriage did not last, although afterwards he and Patricia were to remain good friends, and he eventually remarried. But unfortunately in 1985, ill health now began to dominate the picture, and following the onset of glaucoma, Barney decided to take early retirement before his clinical abilities were affected. He and his second wife, Jennifer, went to live in Tenerife, but after a few years returned to the UK, settling in Wickham, Hampshire. Here they were able to derive much enjoyment from regular visits to the London theatre, as well as extensive world travel. Shortly after a visit to Florence he developed pneumonia, which became complicated by an empyema. This required rib resection and drainage, and after a somewhat stormy illness he eventually made an excellent recovery. He later needed a cardiac pacemaker, but undeterred by this, and the need for anticoagulation, the travels resumed. The sea was one of Barney’s great loves, and whenever possible he and Jennifer would go by ship – it mattered not whether cruise liner or small coastal vessel. Indeed it was while filming the Montenegran coast from the ship’s upper deck that Barney had the fall which brought a most distinguished life to an all-too-sudden end.

Hugh M Baird

[gktgazette Feb/March 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List