Lives of the fellows

Albert Cecil (Sir) Graham

b.22 January 1928 d.24 August 2009
MB BS Lond(1954) DCH(1955) MRCP(1962) FRCP(1974) Hon FRCPCH(2002)

Sir Albert Cecil Graham was the first consultant paediatrician to be appointed to the island of Barbados. He did not have an academic profile, but was a sound and sought-after clinician and a dedicated teacher. As a lifelong campaigner and successful fundraiser, his greatest achievement was the establishment of high-quality healthcare and education for disabled children, and its progressive introduction to the other Caribbean islands.

Known throughout the island as ‘Bertie’, he was the son of George Washington Graham, a local shipwright and schooner captain who, during the Second World War, was in conflict with a U-boat! His mother was Cecil Howell Harding. He was a pupil at Harrison College, even today acknowledged as the top secondary school in Barbados, and was destined for a career as an architect. His twin brother, George, had won a scholarship to study medicine at Cambridge, but unfortunately died, aged 17 years, from acute rheumatic fever complicating scarlatina – conditions which were still prevalent in the Caribbean at that time. Consequently, Bertie was told by his somewhat authoritarian father that he would ‘do medicine’.

After a preclinical year at McGill University, Toronto, he was admitted to Guy’s Hospital Medical School, where he completed his clinical training, graduating in 1954. As a student he was attracted to paediatrics, and rapidly after qualifying gained the diploma in child health. Following junior medical posts in the London area, he returned to Barbados as a medical registrar at the General Hospital, where he studied for the MRCP examination, essential for a paediatric career at that time. He passed in 1962. Aided by a Commonwealth scholarship in the same year, he obtained a neonatal senior house officer post at Hammersmith, under Sir Peter Tizard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.518], followed by a period at the London Hospital. In 1962 he was appointed as a consultant physician at Barbados General Hospital, where he was obliged to care for both adults and children, and in 1964 he was appointed as the first head of paediatrics at the newly-opened Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where he served for 26 years.

On initial appointment, he was a single-handed consultant, supported by just two house officers, and was frequently called in for emergencies, particularly in the newly-formed premature baby unit. His persistent but polite negotiating skills led to the progressive expansion of the paediatric department, and the premature baby unit evolved into an intensive care neonatal unit. By the time he retired in 1990 there were five consultant paediatricians, and now eight, most of whom trained wholly or partly under his wing. He also succeeded in persuading the government to fund preschool immunisation for all children, leading to the elimination of diseases such as measles, diphtheria and tetanus. As an associate lecturer at the University of the West Indies he was involved in teaching both undergraduate medical students and postgraduates, and his influence was gradually accepted in other centres in the Caribbean.

Returning from the United Kingdom in 1962, Bertie was conscious that there were no facilities for the care of disabled children. As a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, he was exposed to the teaching of Ronald Mac Keith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.358], a well-known pioneer in this field, and this was almost certainly the source of his inspiration. In Barbados, the Challenor School was established by parents of children with Down’s syndrome and run by nuns, who invited Graham to be their medical officer. Because of his caring and sympathetic approach he was soon elected a member of their committee. From this the Barbados Association for Mentally Retarded Children emerged and he was a board member from 1968 to 1994. During the late 1970s he and a few friends organized a fund which yielded more than one million Bds$s (about £250,000), to create the Barbados Children’s Development Centre, which opened in 1984. Moreover, he successfully negotiated with the government for the running costs to be fully covered, on the basis that all Barbados children were entitled to free education.

During the early 1970s, all the former British Caribbean nations accepted the need for improved care of children with special needs, and Bertie played an important role. He visited various islands, as well as neighbouring South American countries, as an adviser, and in 1988 he was elected vice-president of the Caribbean Association on Mental Retardation and Other Developmental Disabilities, serving until 1994, after which he remained a lifelong adviser. In 1988 he had been elected a founding member of ‘PAREDOS’ (Parents Education for Development in Barbados), whose mission was to raise healthy and responsible citizens, and he was later elected its president.

After his official retirement in 1990, he felt that his work was not finished, and he continued to serve on various committees, remaining director of the Children’s Development Centre until 1995. In the light of his great achievements for the health and welfare of disabled children, he was awarded the Barbados Gold Crown of Merit in 1978, and presented with the Allan Roeher award in 1993 ‘in appreciation of his valuable contribution to the cause of people with mental handicaps’. He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in 2002, and was knighted ‘for services to medicine and paediatric medicine’ in the New Year honours 2008.

Bertie was married twice. His first wife was Lorraine Denise née Reid, whom he married in 1956. They had three daughters and a son. He married his second wife, Margaret, in 1975. They were devout Christians, supporting St James Parish Church. They provided wonderful hospitality to overseas visitors, and gave memorable dinner parties. Their lovely house in St James was filled with contemporary art, and Bertie served on the boards of both the Barbados Art Gallery and the Museum. He was also a Rotarian. He was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener, serving for nine years on the committee of the beautiful Andromeda Botanical Garden, at the invitation of the famous horticulturist, Iris Bannochie. Indeed he was a pillar of Barbadian society, frequently greeted in the streets and restaurants by his many friends and former patients, many of whom asked to continue under his care into their twenties.

Bertie died from bacterial endocarditis complicating aortic valve surgery, and was survived by Margaret and his four children.

Richard H R White

[The Barbados Advocate 27 August 2009 – accessed 30 January 2012; Brit.med.J 2009 339 5541]

(Volume XII, page web)

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