Lives of the fellows

Robert Gordon Welch

b.15 July 1924 d.25 January 2013
MB BS Lond(1945) MRCP(1950) MD(1951) FRCP(1973)

Gordon Welch was a consultant paediatrician in Hartlepool from 1958 to 1987. For the first 19 years, Gordon single-handedly shaped a highly regarded paediatric department and, over nearly 30 years, provided expert care for several generations of children in the Hartlepool area.

Gordon Welch was brought up in Highbury, north London, in a medical and scientific family. His father, Robert Welch, was a general practitioner; his mother, Sybil Irmgard Ogilvie Gordon, was the daughter of John Gordon, a doctor based in Aberdeen. Additionally, Gordon’s grandmother, Dame Maria (May) Matilda Ogilvie Gordon, an accomplished and well-travelled geologist, was the first women to be awarded a doctor of science degree by London University. With this background, it is not surprising that both Gordon and his younger sister Coral became doctors.

Gordon was educated at Highgate School and from an early age was able to indulge in his lifelong love of films by visiting local cinemas. By good fortune, when his class were taken to Ealing to act as extras in the 1939 version of Goodbye Mr Chips, he was singled out by his red hair and presciently, given his future career, was required to announce to his classmates that Mrs Chips was in labour. In 1939 Gordon was evacuated with the rest of his school to Westward Ho!

In August 1941, Gordon entered St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School and was evacuated to Guildford, where he also joined the Home Guard. He qualified MB BS in November 1945 and took his first jobs as a casualty officer and then house physician at Essex County Hospital, Colchester, until he was called up for National Service in September 1947. Gordon’s National Service as a medical officer in RAF bomber stations in the UK, Egypt Canal Zone and Malta was a source of numerous anecdotes in later life, suggesting that this was a time of excitement well away from post-war austerity, although the turbulent reality re-established itself when his April 1949 discharge was delayed by the Berlin Airlift.

Following his National Service, Gordon returned to St Thomas’, where he worked under Edward Peter Sharpey-Shäfer [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.372] and Garnet Prunty [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.482]. Prunty had returned from America with a suitcase of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) and cortisone, which Gordon had first encountered when working with US forces, and these were tried out on the rheumatoid cases in the metabolic unit, the results of which was the subject of one of Gordon’s earliest medical publications.

In 1950 Gordon moved to the Hospital for Sick Children, at Great Ormond Street under Bernard Schlesinger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.441]. It was here that he met his future wife, Margaret Fisher, who was also a doctor. He was using a very literal interpretation of his mother’s instruction to bring a ‘girl from overseas’ home for Christmas dinner – Margaret’s parents had recently moved back to Northern Ireland. They married in 1954, the same year that he became a senior registrar at St Thomas’.

In 1958, the Hartlepool and North Tees Hospital Group decided to establish a post of consultant paediatrician in Hartlepool. Gordon was successful in applying for the post, which was initially only part-time. Gordon only envisaged staying in Hartlepool for a few years to gain experience, however, once he had demonstrated the value of full-time paediatric provision and settled with his family into his much-loved home, he remained in Hartlepool for the rest of his life.

For almost two decades, Gordon was the only consultant paediatrician in Hartlepool, but he managed to shape a successful and innovative department. He was particularly proud that 40 per cent of his patients had a resident parent and he led the way in ensuring that parents could visit and care for their children while they were in hospital. In 1964 he won the C H Milburn prize, jointly with R T Cooke, for ‘A study in cot death’ (Br Med J. 1964 Dec 19;2[5424]:1549-54), an early epidemiological survey. He was also heavily involved in setting up and the early running of the Northern Region’s Perinatal Mortality Survey.

In 1987, at the age of 62, Gordon retired and started a long and happy phase of his life with his wife, Margaret, indulging in his pleasures of travel, film, local history, walking and regular and lengthy stays at a family house in County Down, Northern Ireland. He was at the heart of a close family, with a daughter (Jill), two sons (James and Simon) and a granddaughter. Gordon’s wife, Margaret, died shortly after him in August 2013.

Gordon was recognised as an accomplished and knowledgeable physician, but above all is fondly remembered for a calm and reassuring manner that meant that he could skilfully examine and treat even the most reluctant of his young patients.

Simon Welch

[Hartlepool Mail 2 February 2013 www.hartlepoolmail.co.uk/news/local/tributes-to-pioneer-children-s-doctor-1-5376310 – accessed 16 May 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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