Lives of the fellows

Rolf Carlton Richards

b.24 February 1929 d.29 January 2001
MB BS Durham(1955) MRCP(1959) FRCP(1974)

Rolf Richards, known as ‘Rolfie’, was professor of medicine at the faculty of medical sciences, University of the West Indies, and undisputedly the ‘father of diabetes’ in the Caribbean. He was born in Trinidad, the son of Hugh Richards, a chemist and druggist, and Hildred Richards née Brown, the daughter of a landowner. He was educated at Queens Royal College and then studied medicine in the UK, at Durham University. He went on to hold junior posts at Newcastle General Hospital, before returning to the Caribbean. He worked at Port-of-Spain General Hospital, Trinidad, and was subsequently appointed to the staff of the department of medicine, University of the West Indies, Jamaica.

He was a founder member and honorary consultant of the Diabetes Association of Jamaica and the Diabetes Association of the Caribbean. His passion for education was unbridled and it was common to hear him in the diabetes clinic teaching the patients, doctors and nurses. He maintained that a subject like diabetes must empower those who suffer from it to look after themselves. He would use his slim and athletic physique as the model to which all should aspire as “fatness spelt badness for health”.

He gave his time to travel the length and breadth of the Caribbean, teaching and sharing his knowledge and skills. He was the anchor at the annual International Diabetes Meeting in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, where some 500-700 healthcare practitioners meet to discuss various problems and challenges in managing diabetes worldwide. His insightful comments and questions were fiery, sometimes controversial, but always stimulating and thought-provoking.

A sharp tongue and ready wit made him stand tall amongst his peers, a necessity considering his short stature. Confidence oozed and knowledge flowed, and all were inspired by this little man with an encyclopaedic brain. In open forum or small bedside teaching, when he got going on his subject, he would pause for air, put a foot upon the edge of the bed, pull up his sock and dip into his pocket for a cigarette. He smoked heavily and, when warned against the habit, his response was “something gotta take you someday.”

Inside the classroom and outside amongst his peers and students he was affable, friendly and sincere. He is known to advise: “if you have nothing good to say about a colleague, say nothing.” Indeed, his heart was so large he carried no grudge and was always ready to help. As a party man he was the life of the group and his effervescence grew with his favourite Johnny Walker Black. He was a sportsman of sorts and even with advancing age he was a formidable opponent at squash. He played so fiercely that in his latter years he tore his Achilles tendon. When asked why his foot was bandaged, his answer was, “that’s what you get for beating the hell out of them.”

Despite illness during his latter years, his love of erudition, his earnestness and his fire never waned. In 2000 he was the first recipient of the Sir Phillip Sherlock award for outstanding and distinguished contribution to medicine in general and diabetes in particular in the Caribbean. In addition, the Medical Association of Jamaica gave a plaque in appreciation of his leadership and mentoring in the discipline.

Errol Y St A Morrison

[The Anglican Outlook, March 2001]

(Volume XII, page web)

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