Lives of the fellows

Beryl Dorothy Corner

b.9 December 1910 d.4 March 2007
OBE(2006) MRCS LRCP(1934) MB BS Lond(1934) MD(1936) MRCP(1936) FRCP(1953) Hon MD Bristol(1996) Hon FRCPCH(1997) Hon DSc UWE(2000)

Beryl Corner was the first paediatrician in the south west of England and one of the founders of neonatology in the UK. Her death marked the loss of the last survivor of a group of women paediatricians whose achievements helped to break down barriers to the advancement of women in medicine.

Beryl Corner’s achievements as a consultant paediatrician were considerable and by themselves would warrant a prominent place in the history of British paediatrics, but her importance and the legacy she left owes as much to the way she managed to progress in her career to become a paediatrician and the paths that she opened up for others where none had existed. She had to break down the resistance of physicians who saw no need for paediatricians, obstetricians who thought they were able to look after newborns and tried to ban her from the maternity wards, and male doctors who controlled hospital appointments and were hostile to the appointment of women in training posts, let alone senior positions. These challenges were met by a doctor with exceptional intellectual gifts, unbounded energy, unstinting devotion to the care of babies and children, and an iron will.

The daughter of Edward Graham Corner, a local government officer in the Port of Bristol Authority, and Cicely Rose née Menzies, Beryl Corner was a fourth generation Bristolian whose great-grandfather had been a tea merchant in the city. She was educated at Redland High School for Girls, where she won the form prize every year, had a glittering career as a prize-winning medical student at the London School of Medicine for Women (Royal Free) where she qualified in 1934, and then sailed through her higher medical exams in 1936. It was during her student years that her interest in paediatrics took hold when she attended ward rounds at Great Ormond Street Hospital and was taught by Sir Robert Hutchison [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.208]. After house officer posts at the Royal Free, the realistic options for her, as a woman doctor, were to try to obtain a post in general practice or in public health. She was all set to join a general practice in Bristol when a surgeon friend of the family suggested that she apply for a vacant post as resident medical officer at the Bristol Children’s Hospital.

Malnutrition, rickets, anaemia, tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, high perinatal mortality, the effects of child poverty, lack of sanitation, the devastating mortality from gastro-entertitis and the toll taken by childhood infection in the pre-antibiotic era and before the development of modern vaccines were part of her day-to-day experience as a young doctor at the Children’s Hospital. She recognised the importance of meticulous nursing care, good nutrition, the prevention of cross infection and became convinced of the need for doctors who specialised in the care of children and were based at the Children’s Hospital, rather than adult physicians who dropped in to do rounds. She came across the opposition of physicians who saw no need for a paediatrician to look after their young patients, and a professor of medicine who seemed to resent her presence and told her there was no future in paediatrics.

Seeking further training in paediatrics, she found she could not apply to Great Ormond Street Hospital, which had an official policy of not employing women house physicians. She applied for a post as registrar at the Westminster Children’s Hospital, only to be told in a letter from Donald Paterson, consultant paediatrician and secretary of the British Paediatric Association, that although she was the outstanding candidate, they could not appoint her because she was a woman. Eventually she obtained a post at the Brompton Hospital, before returning to Bristol, where she was appointed as honorary physician to the outpatients in 1937 and became one of the first full-time paediatricians in the UK, surviving with money from lecturing nurses and some private practice.

Stimulated by the need to improve the care of newborn babies, she ventured on to the maternity wards at Bristol, but was told by the obstetricians that her presence was not welcome. Fortunately for the babies of Bristol and development of neonatology in the UK, she simply ignored this instruction, and was instrumental in improving the medical and nursing care of babies, which almost certainly was a major factor in reducing perinatal mortality. With the support of the medical officer of health, empowered by her appointment as consultant paediatrician in 1942, and influenced by the work of Julius Hess in the USA and Mary Crosse in Birmingham, she went on to set up the special care baby unit at Southmead Hospital which opened in 1946, gained an international reputation and provided the example and stimulus for many other units in the UK. She was a founder member of the Neonatal Society and became an adviser to the WHO in neonatology.

The detection and treatment of haemolytic disease of the newborn, incubator care of premature infants, good nutrition, control of temperature, prevention of cross infection, the establishment of a breast milk bank, outreach health visitors, together with meticulous nursing care and records were all part of the service at Southmead and were copied in other units, whereas it was the survival of the quads that she cared for in 1948 that brought her to the attention of a wider public.

Between 1942 and 1947 she was the only paediatrician in the south west of England and made herself available to help with paediatric problems from Swindon to the east, the Scilly Isles to the west and Tewkesbury to the north.

She was an enthusiastic teacher and as well as lecturing nurses she started one of the first courses in the UK in paediatric medicine for medical students. She published many research papers in her career, together with a widely read book on prematurity (Prematurity: the diagnosis, care and disorders of the premature infant, etc London, Cassell, 1960). Her last scientific communication was an electronic response sent to the Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2003 in her nineties, in which she made observations on a recent article on the medical treatment of pyloric stenosis, a technique which she had pioneered and described in a paper in 1955.

Beryl Corner made a tactical decision not be seen as a feminist. She delayed joining the Medical Women's Federation until 1954, at which time both she, and perhaps the federation itself, had become a part of the medical establishment. She later became its president. She was very supportive of women doctors who came to her for help with problems of discrimination. Her achievements and those of other women paediatricians brought into focus the inequity of barring women from the male bastions of medicine and in 1945 she and four other distinguished women paediatricians were finally allowed to become members of their own professional body, the British Paediatric Association.

Short of stature, she travelled around Bristol in a large white Mercedes, which could at first sight seem driverless until it passed by at speed and her distinctive profile could be seen behind the wheel. Sociable and charming with friends and colleagues, loyal and supportive to her extended family, helpful to young paediatricians who showed commitment, she had no hesitation in showing disapproval at work if she thought her high standards were not met by her staff. Famously, she was an iron lady whose handbag was known on a few notable occasions to make contact when emphasising a point. None of this was personal, and the anger disappeared as quickly as the morning dew. Nearly all those who worked for her came to regard her with great affection and respect. She had a direct approach that some parents found difficult, but there were very many who were devoted to her.

Towards the end of her life she became something of a television celebrity with programmes about her life in medicine and in her 95th year she was awarded an OBE.

She enjoyed conversation, with centre stage her natural place, whether in a small group, a medical meeting or with parents. She was, perhaps, less suited to a purely listening role. She had a host of interests, was an accomplished amateur musician, a patron of the arts, made contributions to the study of medical history, and became ‘paediatrician’ to Bristol Zoo, where she was an innovator in the care of sick newborn primates. On at least one occasion she admitted a sick primate into an incubator alongside the babies in the neonatal unit. She was a committed Christian and an active member of Christ Church, Clifton. She was unmarried.

David Stevens

[The Independent 15 March 2007; Brit.med.J.,2007,334,906]

(Volume XII, page web)

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