Lives of the fellows

Abraham (Sir) Goldberg

b.7 December 1923 d.1 September 2007
Kt(1983) MB ChB Edin(1946) MRCP(1951) MD(1956) FRCPS(1964) FRCP Edin(1965) DSc Glasg(1966) FRCP(1967) FFPM(1989)

Sir Abraham Goldberg (‘Abe’) was professor of medicine at the University of Glasgow and a world expert on the porphyrias. Born in Edinburgh, his father was Julius Goldberg, a Hebrew teacher and draper, and his mother, Rachel, was the daughter of Abraham Varinovsky, a timber merchant. Although she arrived from the Ukraine illiterate, Rachel managed to run two shops and raise five children, of whom Abe was the youngest. Aged 10, he had contracted rheumatic fever and spent six months bedridden. It was said that the care he received inspired his choice of a medical career. Having won a scholarship, he attended George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh and trained in medicine at Edinburgh University and the Royal Infirmary.

Qualifying in 1946, he became house physician at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh until he was called up for National Service. He joined the RAMC in 1947, and served mainly in Egypt. On his discharge in 1949 he was granted the rank of honorary major.

On demobilisation, he did a couple of house jobs, including one back at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, which he described later as ‘the most difficult job I have ever had to do’ as he had to cope, inexperienced as he was, with difficult decisions on his own, since the hospital’s registrars were still on active service. Turning to academia, he obtained a Nuffield scholarship to study chemical pathology at University College London in 1952. Here he learnt the research skills that were to take him far in his chosen subject. After two years in London, he won an Eli Lilly travelling fellowship to work in Salt Lake City with the celebrated haematologist, Max Wintrobe. Although he enjoyed his two years in the US, he did not want to stay there as he was disturbed by the inequalities in health care that he found; he was always a passionate supporter of the NHS.

He returned to Scotland in 1956 as a lecturer in medicine in Glasgow and in 1959 became honorary consultant physician to the Western Infirmary, obtaining a personal chair in 1967. The same year he published, with his colleagues, an important paper tracing a cluster of mentally handicapped children in a specific area in Glasgow to the storage of water in lead lined tanks. His work in this field resulted in a great improvement in drinking water quality in Glasgow. In 1970 he was appointed regius professor of materia medica to Glasgow University and regius professor of medicine in 1978, remaining in that post for 11 years. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1971.

Serving on various important bodies such as the Medical Research Council, he also headed the Committee on the Safety of Medicines (CSM) from 1980 to 1986. The CSM had been formed in the wake of the thalidomide disaster in which a drug prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of morning sickness in pregnant women turned out to cause horrific birth defects. During his time on that committee he devised a quick reference wheel for GPs on drug interactions and was present during the controversy over the anti-arthritic drug, opren. A BBC programme in the Panorama series criticised the committee’s handling of this drug, which was found to cause liver disease and showed Goldberg, as chairman, in an unfavourable light. He was exonerated, however, and won cross-party support in the House of Commons. In 1983 he was given a knighthood for his services to medicine.

Teaching was given a high priority in his unit, and he was prepared to spend time with his students. Many of them remember his method of teaching the nerve supply of the skin by his ‘dermatone dance’ – getting them to place their hands on different parts of their body while reciting the corresponding nerve supply.

He published over 250 reports and papers on topics such as disorders of metabolism associated with porphyria and the effects of smoking and drinking on the disease. For a time, he was editor of the Scottish Medical Journal. With C Rimington he wrote Diseases of porphyria metabolism (Springfield, Illinois, Thomas, 1962) and, with three others, Disorders of porphyrin metabolism (New York, Springer, 1987). Two years after he retired he produced Pharmaceutical medicine and the law (Liverpool, Adoni, 1991).

Very interested in history, after retirement he became a professorial research fellow in modern history at Glasgow University and produced several scholarly works. He gave the Fitzpatrick Lecture of the RCP on the history of European medicine in 1988 and later delivered the Goodall Memorial Lecture of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow on James VI and I. Swimming and reading were favourite pastimes.

A sufferer of chronic back pain all his life, this was said to give him extra empathy with his patients. When he was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow he was forced to turn it down as the back trouble inhibited his ability to travel.

In 1957, he met and married Clarice née Cussin following a whirlwind romance that led to their engagement after two weeks. Her father, Jacob, was a fruiterer. They had two sons, Richard and David, and a daughter, Jennifer. He barely survived a serious stroke in 2006, and died four months later of a heart attack. He was survived by Clarice, their children and four grandchildren and was buried on what would have been his 50th wedding anniversary.

RCP editor

[BMJ, 2007 335 891; The Times 17 October 2007; Royal Society of Edinburgh www.royalsoced.org.uk/cms/files/fellows/obits_alpha/goldberg_a.pdf – accessed on 18 December 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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