Lives of the fellows

Edward Barry Adams

b.2 January 1918 d.18 November 2010
BSc Natal(1937) MB BChir Witwatersrand(1944) MRCP(1947) BSc Oxon(1948) MD Witwatersrand(1958) FRCP(1958) Hon MD Natal(1984)

Barry Adams was appointed at the age of 36 to the post of foundation professor of medicine in the fledgling medical school for black students at the University of Natal, Durban. It was a post he was to fill with distinction for the next 25 years.

Barry Adams was born in Durban, South Africa, the son of Edward Adams, a civil servant, and Hilda Thurgarland Adams née Beckett, the daughter of a merchant. He was educated in Durban and went on to Natal University College, where he completed a degree in science prior to switching to medicine, which he then studied at the University of Witwatersrand. During his clinical years he came strongly under the influence of the part-time professor of medicine, William Hofmeyr ‘Don’ Craib [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.119], who had previously worked with Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.531], and who had returned to South Africa in 1932 when his seminal ‘doublet’ hypothesis on the activation of cardiac muscle was rejected at the time by the world leaders in cardiology. Don Craib proved to be an accomplished clinician and charismatic teacher, becoming a dominant medical figure in South Africa. He influenced not only the life of Barry Adams, but also those of generations of students who came within his orbit.

Having completed internships in South Africa, Barry Adams took up a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he worked between 1946 and 1948 in the Nuffield department of clinical medicine under Leslie Witts [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.618]. Clinical haematology was a relatively new discipline and the department was in the forefront of its development, with strong research interests in the anaemias, especially those due to iron, B12 and folate deficiency. In addition to his clinical duties, Barry Adams also became involved in research, having a special interest in aplastic anaemia.

On returning to South Africa in 1948, Barry Adams spent two years as a general practitioner in Pinetown, Natal, a period which he felt enriched his later academic life. He then worked for four years as an assistant physician at the King Edward VIII Hospital, Durban, prior to his appointment as foundation professor of medicine at the new medical school of the University of Natal and as head of the division of medicine in the large and overcrowded King Edward VIII Hospital. From the outset, he was adamant that academic and clinical standards in his department should be equivalent to those of the well-established medical schools in South Africa, and to this end he instituted a rigorous teaching programme. He was a stimulating teacher, skilfully applying the Socratic approach he had acquired from Don Craib in which students and staff were encouraged to question accepted wisdom and seek new insights. He also demonstrated, by example, the old fashioned core values of medicine, compassion for patients and respect for colleagues. It is important to note that all this teaching and clinical work was carried out in a medical school that was constantly under threat from an antagonistic and interfering Apartheid government. Barry Adams was steadfast in ensuring that the ideals and standards of his department were upheld during these difficult times, and he continued to attract and train young colleagues of high calibre throughout his long tenure.

Some of the research interests of the department of medicine reflected Barry Adams’ previous experience in haematology, and a number of studies were done over the years on various aspects of the nutritional anaemias. The programme of the department soon expanded to include two topics which presented life-threatening clinical challenges in Natal, namely neonatal tetanus and invasive amoebiasis. A special unit was set up within the department to carry out controlled trials on different therapeutic options in tetanus and its recommendations were to become standard clinical practice. Many aspects of amoebiasis were also studied, including a variety of clinical and treatment regimens. The various results of Barry Adams’ and his colleagues’ research work were published in a number of prestigious international publications. He was also invited to talk on his findings at a number of major congresses and universities. At various times he also travelled to different parts of the world on Carnegie, Ernest Oppenheimer and Horder grants. He was active in university and in national affairs, serving on the committee for research in the medical sciences of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which was chaired by Don Craib, and which facilitated the creation of the SA Medical Research Council. Most of these academic activities came to an end when Barry Adams retired, but he continued to produce scholarly works for a number of years and was able to return to the clinical environment, working as a consultant physician in several hospitals in South Africa.

Barry Adams wrote four books. Tetanus (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1969), co-written with DR Laurence and JWG Smith, distilled the departmental unit’s unique experience with the disease. He also wrote A companion to clinical medicine in the tropics and subtropics (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979). In a third book, In search of truth: a portrait of Don Craib (Royal Society of Medicine Services, 1990), he wrote a balanced and affectionate memoir of his mentor and friend. Barry Adams’ last book, Anthony and Maggie Barker – lives in tandem (Long Melford, 1997), recorded the lives and times of two remarkable medical missionaries.

Barry Adams played rugby for the universities of Natal and the Witwatersrand, and for St John’s College, Oxford. Other hobbies included swimming and walking, especially with family and friends in the Drakensberg mountains, where a bench now commemorates his love of the area. However, his major passion was carpentry, and he continued to produce work of the highest quality even in his later years. A highlight of his 90th birthday celebration was the presentation of a portfolio of his output over the years.

At a personal level, Barry Adams was a person of considerable charm. He was outgoing and friendly, full of warmth and good cheer, enjoying nothing more than the thrusts and parries of a good debate. He was blessed by having a wife, Sybil (née North), his equal intellectually, who was a true and active partner in a marriage that lasted 67 years, and it came as no real surprise when she died less than a year after her husband. Sybil always ran an open house for staff, students and friends, her hospitality continuing when she and Barry retired to Long Melford in Suffolk. They had two sons (David and Martin) and two daughters (Jane and Sally) who, together with their offspring, maintained close ties with their parents right up until the end.

Thomas H Bothwell

[Brit.med.J., 2011 342 1023; SAMJ Vol.101, no.2 Cape Town Feb 2011]

(Volume XII, page web)

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