Lives of the fellows

Michael Oliver Gibson

b.24 June 1915 d.18 April 2007
MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BCh Cantab(1940) MRCP(1941) MD(1952) FRCP(1970)

Michael Gibson’s skill as a chest physician was grounded in a deep understanding and effective practice of general medicine. Over some 30 years, he combined his work as a consultant chest physician (first at Bow Arrow Hospital, Dartford, then at Grove Park Hospital and Lewisham Chest Clinic) with his role as medical officer at Goldsmiths College, London, where he helped set up what developed into a combined medical, nursing and counselling service for students and staff.

He got an immense enjoyment out of life, stemming in part from his insatiable curiosity. From his earliest days he could remember dismantling his clockwork toys to see how they worked, despite the fact that they never worked again once he’d pulled them apart. He became fascinated with chemistry. At ten he experimented with a pennyworth of sulphur in the kitchen on cook’s half-day off, and, with the generous support of his grandfather, he concocted a laboratory in an old stable block. Some five years later, a big-game hunting uncle gave him a poisoned arrow and challenged him to find out if it contained strophanthin or curare. The chemistry master at Winchester College gave him details of the best method of extraction. This produced a white powder with the precise melting point of strophanthin. This same master predicted: “The time will come when you’ll have to decide whether to be a research chemist or a professional poisoner.” In Michael’s words: “I compromised and became a doctor of medicine.”

Winchester College was an important educational step in that compromise. He had begun his education at the Old Malthouse, a boarding prep school at Langton Matravers in Dorset. After Winchester he went to Trinity College, Cambridge (in due course gaining an MD with a thesis on sarcoidosis) and St Thomas’ Hospital, London, where he was a house surgeon, and house physician from 1939 to 1941, and medical registrar from 1947 to 1949. The gap between 1941 and 1947 was filled by his RAF medical service at home and in Europe. In the last six months, he was a wing commander in charge of RAF Hospital Wroughton. He was mentioned in despatches, noting, with characteristic sang-froid, on his College biographical form, “God knows why!”

In 1947 he married Sarah Wells. The marriage lasted some 60 years and they had two sons. One became a farmer in the family tradition, the other a lawyer.

In his everyday life, Michael had a wide range of interests, including cooking, gardening, farming and the Italian language and its Latin roots - sensuous chemistry for gut and tongue. He was fond of classical music, particularly for the organ, the explosive chemistry of sound. One of his most magical experiences was when John Dykes Bower, then organist at St Paul’s Cathedral, and a brother of a doctor-friend Wilfred, at St Thomas', took him into the organ loft and showed him how to place fingers and feet to play “Amen” when registered for full organ. In Michael’s words: “It sounded fabulous...and if re-incarnation exists, I shall return as a cathedral organist and a doctor of music rather than of medicine.”

In his retirement, he resumed the country roots of his childhood and, with Sarah, became a much loved and valued member of the community in the Dorset village of Piddlehinton.

Robin Higgins

(Volume XII, page web)

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