Lives of the fellows

John Robert Billinghurst

b.17 April 1927 d.8 February 2012
BA Oxon BM BCh(1952) DObst RCOG(1953) MRCP(1960) FRCP(1975)

John Robert Billinghurst was a consultant physician at Oldchurch Hospital, Romford, with a special interest in neurology. He was born in London, the son of Alfred John Billinghurst, a landscape painter. He was educated at Epsom College and had always wanted to be a doctor. He began his training at St John's College, Oxford, and then went to the London Hospital for his clinical course, gaining prizes in medicine and surgery.

After junior posts and National Service in the Royal West African Frontier Force in West Africa, Billinghurst went to Kampala in Uganda, where he was a senior lecturer and physician at Mengo Hospital. In Kampala he ran a weekly Crusader class (a young peoples' Bible study group). One of those who attended was John Sentamu, later to become the Archbishop of York, whom it was reported walked many miles there and back.

Under Idi Amin's dictatorship, expatriate doctors were eventually expelled, and in 1972 Billinghurst was forced to return to the UK. Initially, he worked as a locum at Kent and Sussex hospitals and then went to work in the Gambia.

He was appointed as a consultant general physician with a special interest in neurology at Oldchurch Hospital in 1973, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. He was keen on medical leadership, becoming chairman of the medical division and later the medical staff committee. He believed in leading by achieving consensus, although some of the personalities in the hospital made this challenging! He always tried to see the best of people, no matter how trying they were.

Towards the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, three young physicians were appointed to consultant posts, the last being the writer of this obituary. Billinghurst felt it was his duty to support and mentor us, and he organised meetings in the common room of the postgraduate centre to keep us up to date with proposed developments in the hospital. As this was shortly after the so-called Cultural Revolution in China, the group was styled the ‘Gang of Four’, after those who effectively controlled the Communist Party of China under Mao! However, this gang's aims and agenda were not hard line but progressive. An active training programme at senior house officer level was developed, and a very high MRCP pass rate was achieved.

Billinghurst was committed to postgraduate education and was a great supporter of the postgraduate centre as it developed during his first few years there. He was a lively, enthusiastic and very popular teacher, emphasising clinical facts and patients' backgrounds. His clinical teaching sessions were always well attended, by large numbers of trainees, as well by his consultant physician colleagues, there for their own education in neurology.

During his consultant career he also spent time overseas, in East Africa and Zambia, teaching clinical medicine, and also in China, where he was one of a group of four doctors teaching for one month at a time. He found this very interesting, challenging and rewarding. He also visited a leprosy village in Thailand. Finally, he spent two years in the Gambia.

His medical and management work was characterised by an intense interest in and care for people, reflecting his strong Christian faith. He led by example and generally made his point using a few, well-chosen words. He was known for his continual care of patients and young doctors, particularly those from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. His humour, hospitality and wise friendship was legendary.

In all of his work he was supported by his wife, Damaris Arabella née Barnardo, known as ‘Arbell’, whom he married in in Leigh-on-Sea in 1957. She survived him, as did their two daughters, Sara and Jessica.

Rodney Burnham

[Brit.med.J., 2012 344 3813]

(Volume XII, page web)

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