Lives of the fellows

Edwin Robert Bickerstaff

b.20 November 1920 d.23 November 2007
MB ChB Birm(1943) MD(1947) MRCP(1949) FRCP(1965)

Edwin Robert Bickerstaff was a consultant neurologist at the Midlands Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology. Known as ‘Dwin’, he was born in Aberystwyth and prided himself on his Welsh roots. Robert, his father, was a governor of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and was also High Sheriff of Cardiganshire. The family moved to Birmingham and Dwin won a place at King Edward’s in Edgbaston. He was very musical and had a fine bass voice. At a certain point, a decision had to be made between medicine and a career in music. Jokingly, he said he eventually chose the former because he feared he was not robust enough for the latter. He went to the medical school in Birmingham and qualified in 1943.

He then joined the RAF Medical Corps and was in Europe after the D-Day landings. He became a squadron leader and after the war helped run the RAF’s TB service. His MD thesis in 1947 was based on this work on TB.

Following his demobilisation, he developed his lifelong interest in neurology. He held junior posts in Birmingham, and in 1952 he was awarded a prestigious research fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with Raymond Adams.

Soon after his return, he was appointed as a consultant neurologist with responsibilities to set up neurological services at the Midlands Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology in Smethwick. This became an internationally highly regarded unit. The population served was eight million. Dwin looked after not just west Birmingham, but Birmingham Children’s Hospital, Coventry, Rugby, Hereford, Shrewsbury and some of north and mid-Wales.

His clinical experience was second to none. He was a great record-keeper, very well organised and a keen observer. Every patient he had under his care was entered on his punch card system, which was highly efficient, allowing him to keep a large database, long before computers.

He described basilar migraine in which consciousness is lost in a migraine attack and distinguished it from migraine triggering an epileptic event. His paper ‘Brain-stem encephalitis: further observations on a grave syndrome with benign prognosis’ (Br Med J. 1957 Jun 15;1[5032]:1384-7) was a landmark publication. This form of encephalitis has been named after him. He wrote three medical bestsellers: Neurological examination in clinical practice (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1963), now known as ‘Bickerstaff’s neurological examination’; Neurology for nurses (London, English Universities Press, 1971), which was extremely popular, not only with nurses, but also medical students; and Neurological complications of oral contraceptives (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975), which showed an increase in stroke and involuntary movements in women on the oral contraceptive pill.

He was a valued and highly respected colleague and opinion. He was an ideal mentor and teacher, very popular with trainees and students. It is a great loss that we do not have a film of his bedside teaching and clinical presentations for future generations to enjoy. He was appointed as an unpaid honorary senior lecturer at Birmingham University, and all his writing and research were done in his spare time.

He was a trustee of the Association of British Neurologists and president of the clinical neurosciences section of the Royal Society of Medicine. He was elected an honorary member of the French and also the Danish neurological societies.

He married Claire Woodhall in 1943 and they had a son and a daughter. Following his divorce, in 1987 he married Sara Bramall, the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Bramall.

D J Thomas

[The Telegraph 7 March 2008 – accessed 4 July 2011;, 2008 336 839]

(Volume XII, page web)

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