Lives of the fellows

Frederick Brian Gibberd

b.7 July 1931 d.20 February 2006
MB BChir Cantab(1957) MRCS LRCP(1957) MRCP(1960) FRCP(1972) MD(1974) FRCP Edin(1993) Hon FFOM(1995)

At 34 Brian Gibberd was the youngest Westminster Medical School graduate to be appointed to the staff for over 200 years when he became physician and neurologist to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, and Westminster Hospital in 1965. Latterly, he was the world authority on Refsum’s disease, one of the last neurologists still doing general medicine and was president of several of the societies with which he had been involved.

Brian was the son of the distinguished obstetrician, George Frederick Gibberd, and Margaret Erica née Taffs. He was a scholar at Aldenham School and Caius College, Cambridge. He was an outstanding student at Westminster Medical School, where he graduated in 1957. He was elected FRCP in 1972, FRCP Edinburgh in 1993 and in 1995 was made an honorary fellow of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. He held junior medical posts at Westminster, Addenbrooke’s, the Brompton, the National and the Royal London hospitals. He was appointed consultant to the Westminster Hospital Teaching group in 1965 and later moved to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where he worked until he retired in 1996. He was in fact one of the last physicians in the country who combined acute general medicine and neurology. After retirement he continued with his flourishing private practice, his NHS Refsum’s clinic and he also continued to publish, to examine, to carry out medico-legal work and be involved with numerous medical societies.

As a consultant he achieved early recognition at Roehampton Hospital for his skilful management of the many neurological problems suffered by returning Japanese prisoners of war. He went on to a distinguished career as a general neurologist and contributed to several books, including those on medical negligence and the MRCP examination. He published some 150 articles and papers on epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and more recently on Refsum’s disease, arguably becoming the world’s expert. He took delight in telling us that he had more patients with Refsum’s disease than Refsum himself!

At Westminster Hospital he was much sought after as a sound clinical opinion, a gifted teacher and, in the view of many clinicians, as a role model. Although he was an intuitive diagnostician, he demonstrated the cardinal importance of a full history and a meticulously thorough clinical examination. His management of difficult cases, which he undoubtedly attracted, was masterly and reflected his logical and precise thought processes. He was supportive and loyal to his juniors but would not hesitate to criticise firmly whenever appropriate.

He was absolutely scrupulous about punctuality and was a great organiser and forward planner, becoming quite distressed if his organisation was thwarted. He possessed those twin assets of being able to formulate and present precise arguments firmly and logically yet with tact and diplomacy. He could disagree, as he often did, without being disagreeable.

Brian was involved with numerous medical committees and societies. It was therefore unsurprising that because of his commonsense, intellectual ability, forthrightness and often uncompromising stance he rapidly made his mark and promptly accepted a leadership role. He became chairman of Westminster Hospital medical committee and was the consultant member of the Riverside District Health Authority. He was a member of Westminster Medical School academic board for 18 years and a member of school council for five years. He took delight in being a freeman of the City of London as a member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and regularly entertained guests at Apothecaries’ Hall. He was master of the Apothecaries in 1996, he was also president of the Harveian and Hunterian societies and of the clinical section of the Royal Society of Medicine, where he was honorary librarian for four years. He worked extremely hard for the College, and even in his younger days his election as chairman of the standing committee of members in 1970 reflected the extraordinarily high esteem in which his peers held him. He was an RCP council member, censor and examiner for 25 years. He also examined for the MB degree and was a somewhat daunting but scrupulously fair examiner. Brian was elected to the General Medical Council for the English constituency in 1992 with a particular interest in education, registration matters and the PLAB (Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board) test, with which he was closely involved for many years.

In rather more parochial matters he was prominently and pugnaciously involved in the fight to save Westminster Medical School and subsequently Westminster Hospital. These closures proved inevitable in due course, but Brian still fought on, even after the new hospital was built on the St Stephen’s site in the Fulham Road.

There was much more to Brian than medicine and medical societies. Although his recreations are listed as gardening, travelling and history, these merely scratch the surface of his many activities. How he found time to do all these things almost defies belief. An ordinary mortal’s life seems somewhat empty when compared with Brian’s. He travelled far and wide, and the Middle and Far East had a particular fascination for him. His knowledge of ancient history was encyclopaedic and at the Open University, where he gained a diploma in classical studies, he was awarded a distinction in the module entitled ‘The rise of scientific Europe 1500-1800’.

In his younger years he was a long distance runner, a squash player and a vital member of the Westminster Medical School hockey team. In the words of a previous captain of that team he played hockey with ‘tenacity and ferocity’.

Where most individuals would buy a holiday home or a boat Brian bought a ten-acre wood in Kent. There he enjoyed being closely involved with nature and the maintenance of woodland, organising picnics and bird watching with medical colleagues. He absolutely adored his two allotments and would regularly shower his friends and family with their produce. When appropriate he dressed precisely and conventionally, but when gardening he wore an eccentric collection of old and often self-mended clothes of some considerable antiquity. He was a compulsive recycler, re-user and hoarder.

But his overriding passion was his love and concern for his family. His parents had imbued in him the wonderful family values he displayed with his own family, particularly handed down by his mother Erica when his father was away during the war. In 1960 he married Margaret, who was his hidden strength and a perfect foil to his huge energy and enthusiasms. They had four delightful daughters, Ruth, Judith, Lucy and Penel. He would persistently instil in them his love of scholarship and achievement, and his most strongly held belief of the pivotal role of family life.

Brian was a fine, chivalrous man, a formidable physician with an outstanding intellect and a zest for life and his family. He died suddenly of a coronary event in his beloved garden in similar circumstances to his father and at a comparable age.

Ronald Zeegen

[Brit.med.J., 2006 332 1338]

(Volume XII, page web)

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