Lives of the fellows

Alastair Hamish Tearloch Robb-Smith

b.11 April 1908 d.17 January 2000
MRCS LRCP(1930) MB BS Oxon(1930) MD Lond(1937) MRCP(1947) FRCP(1952)

Alastair Robb-Smith was a distinguished Oxford pathologist. His father, Alec Robb-Smith, a general practitioner, was killed at Flanders during the First World War, having joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. The family was left with severe financial problems. However Alastair was awarded a scholarship to Epsom College and from there proceeded to St Bartholomew’s Medical School. There the medical curriculum did not occupy his undivided attention. He soon found the Faringdon Road market with its barrow loads of old books, and thus began his lifelong interest in the history of medicine and bibliography in general. Motor racing was another passion and he even raced at Brooklands, until his sports car was said to have passed under, rather than by the side of, a large meat lorry at Smithfields. Robb-Smith qualified in 1930 and was then house physician to Gwyn Macfarlane [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XIII, p.303], one of those who later enticed him to go to Oxford.

He began his distinguished career in pathology as a student in a clerkship with Sir Francis Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.141], followed by his first work on the lymphomas under E H Kettle [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.229]. A travelling scholarship then allowed him to visit both Aschoff at Freiburg and Hortega in Madrid. He won the gold medal for his London MD. This was the time of Lord Nuffield benefaction to the new clinical school at Oxford and in 1937 Robb-Smith joined the new professors of anaesthetics, medicine, surgery and of obstetrics and gynaecology as Nuffield reader in pathology and head of the department at the age of 29. The new team was not welcomed by all the old guard and was called by some the ‘Nuffield interlopers’. Robb-Smith survived a difficult period and became one of the leading figures in the burgeoning new clinical school. He was recognised internationally, particularly for his work on classifying the many and confusing disorders then called the reticuloses. His department quickly became the place to which clinicians would come regularly for consultation and discussion and from which pathologists would be encouraged to appear on the wards.

It was not only in academic affairs that Robb-Smith was so prominent in Oxford. He was particularly interested in the activities and welfare of the clinical students. He was the instigator of the annual Christmas pantomime of the clinical school and it was at this suggestion that the performing company should be called the Tyngewick Society in honour of Nicholas Tyngewick, the first teacher of medicine in Oxford.

Robb-Smith had an extraordinary breadth of interests and expert knowledge – he was a true polymath. He brought scholarship to everything he studied or wrote about, from an account of the history of ice cream or that of the Radcliffe Infirmary, to knowledge of pottery in Brittany and so much else besides. He was a bibliophile and colleagues remember a meeting of the undergraduate Bibliographical Society at Balliol when he produced a learned communication on Hannah Glass’s 18th century text on cooking. His skilful matching of the best food and wine for celebratory occasions was another particular talent. His wife, Peggy Pickles, whom he married in 1950, read botany at Oxford before switching to medicine, in which she made an early mark in her work on foetal death from rhesus incompatibility. She also spent 20 years or more breeding every form of daffodil; Alastair was an apt pupil in this field too. The couple had one daughter, Jessamy Elesaidh Janet.

Letters from Alastair Robb-Smith were always dated with a reference to a saint’s day or the anniversary of some important event. The day of his death was the day of St Anthony of Egypt and the anniversary of the birthdays of Benjamin Franklin, Anton Chekov and David Lloyd-George. Whichever he might have chosen to head a letter need not have been evident to the reader: his handwriting was remarkably difficult to interpret – once described as resembling the illegible gyrations of an inebriated spider and only decipherable by the use of magnifying glass. His lectures were often inspirational, combining a delightful combination of history, philosophy and science, undisturbed by any request for the teaching of only what was required for examinations. Visiting lecturers would be startled by introductions such as: “Today is the 150th anniversary of the first trial at the Hospital of Bicêtre by a French physician, Dr Joseph Guillotin, of the instrument which has since cut short many a promising career – it is particularly appropriate therefore to welcome professor X who is going to talk to us about tropical sprue.”

Robb-Smith gave the 1990 Osler Oration at the College. By then he was almost completely blind and yet the lecture was a triumph. It was particularly unkind of fate to rob a man of his sight when his particular love was the study of books. He had made many contributions to medical science, but he will be remembered not only for these but also for his personal qualities of kindness, modesty and consideration for others.

John Ledingham

[The Times 15 March 2000]

(Volume XII, page web)

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