Lives of the fellows

Elizabeth Joan Stokes

b.6 May 1912 d.28 January 2010
MB BS Lond(1937) MRCS LRCP(1937) MRCP(1939) FRCP(1958) FRCPath(1963)

Joan Stokes was a consultant clinical bacteriologist at University College Hospital (UCH), London. She was born in Hampstead, London, the daughter of Thomas Rooke, an engineer, and Elizabeth Frances née Pearce. Her maternal grandfather was Sir Robert Pearce, a solicitor and a Liberal MP. Joan studied medicine at University College Hospital Medical School, graduating in 1937 with both the MB BS and the conjoint qualification (MRCS LRCP). Her association with UCH and University College London was to span over 70 years.

Between 1937 and 1940, she was successively house physician, house surgeon and casualty officer at UCH. She also worked briefly as a locum in general practice. In 1940, she returned to UCH to become a registrar to Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.531]. This was a prestigious post. However, within a year UCH was evacuated to Cardiff, and Joan decided to make a career change and move from clinical medicine to pathology, much to the consternation of Sir Thomas, who mourned her loss to mainstream medicine. She was appointed as a trainee pathologist in London sector IV of the Emergency Medical Service at Watford, Hertfordshire. Here she fell under the influence of Sir A A Miles [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.337], already an eminent microbiologist. By 1944, Joan had progressed to the post of bacteriologist in sector IV.

In 1940 she married John Fisher Stokes, who also had a distinguished career as a general physician at UCH.

Joan returned to UCH in 1946 as a clinical bacteriologist, the first holder of this post. She became a recognised teacher at the University of London and began a career that inspired numerous future bacteriologists, both medical and non-medical. She retired in 1977.

She was a pioneer in transforming bacteriology from a purely scientific branch of pathology to a clinical sub-specialty in its own right. She was the first person in the UK to derive a method for standardising and controlling the testing of bacterial sensitivity of antibiotics. This method, ‘the Stokes’ method’, remained the standard well into the 1980s. She was a pioneer in infection control, appointing to UCH one of the first infection control nurses. Joan was also an innovator with regard to quality control in the bacteriology laboratory.

Her textbook, initially titled Clinical bacteriology (Edward Arnold, London, 1955), metamorphosed over the years into Clinical microbiology, reflecting the breadth of change in the specialty. The last edition (7th) was published in 1993, co-authored with G L Ridgway and M W D Wren, both from the UCH microbiology department.

In 1958 Stokes was made an FRCP, joining her husband. In 1963 she became a founder fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, and a fellow of University College London in 1971. She was immensely proud of the latter honour as she felt that it reflected the scientific esteem in which she was held.

In retirement, she took up gliding, obtaining her solo licence in her late sixties. Her passions were her extended family and her garden. Her death takes from us a truly remarkable woman who inspired clinical microbiologists the world over.

Geoff Ridgway
Brian Harrison

(Volume XII, page web)

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