Lives of the fellows

Gilbert Lawrence Leathart

b.14 June 1921 d.16 December 2010
BA Cantab(1943) MB BChir(1946) MRCS LRCP(1946) MRCP(1947) MD(1962) FRCP(1971) DIH(1978) MFOM RCP(1978) FFOM RCP(1980)

Gilbert (‘Gibbie’) Leathart was an occupational physician in Newcastle. He was born in Birkenhead, the son of Percival Wilson Leathart, an ENT surgeon, and Margaret Ellen Leathart née Beazley. School in Oxford (at St Edward’s) led to a scholarship to King’s College, where he obtained a first in natural sciences. Clinical training in medicine followed at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where he was awarded the Mead medal. He qualified in 1946.

He began working at St Thomas’ as a casualty officer. Between 1947 and 1949 he carried out his National Service, as a physician in the RAF with the rank of squadron leader. He then returned to St Thomas’ for a three-year spell as a middle grade registrar and a lecturer in medicine. In 1952 he began to train as a GP, but changed course the following year when he went to Newcastle upon Tyne. He then began his definitive career in occupational medicine, with special interest in respiratory disease.

His initial post, in 1953, was as a temporary lecturer at King’s College, Durham University. Sited in Newcastle, this was soon to become the medical faculty of Newcastle University, and he served there successively as a clinical lecturer (from 1954) and as a senior lecturer (from 1965), until his retirement in 1982. These academic posts were supplemented by clinical appointments as an honorary NHS consultant to the principal teaching hospitals of both Durham and Newcastle Universities, Dryburn Hospital and the Royal Victoria Infirmary.

He was elected a fellow of the RCP in 1971, and was an inaugural member of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. He was elected a fellow of the faculty in 1980.

His principal academic interest was occupationally-induced lung disease, and he published a number of articles relating to lung and pleural disease consequent to the inhalation of coal mine dust and asbestos. He had a particular interest in pulmonary physiology, and contributed to the textbooks Work-related lung disorders (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1987) and Lung function: assessment and application in medicine (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1993).

He was a kindly, helpful, quiet (almost reclusive) physician, who spent much of his time working alone in his lung function laboratory. He designed and fabricated much of the equipment himself, and (unsurprisingly) was a DIY expert at home. He had a somewhat quixotic turn of mind, was ingenious, and devised a remarkable stereophonic stethoscope. He demonstrated its impressive performance to one of the authors, but we fear it did not reach a wider audience. Similarly impressive was his collection of photographic slides, documenting historical levels of dust exposure generated from the use of asbestos. He donated these to his successors, and they have illustrated many lectures since.

He was a devoted family man, his marriage to Joanna (née Elliman) spanning 57 years. They had four sons and one daughter – Jeremy, Chris, Julian, Caroline and Adrian – and nine grandchildren. Three of the children were to migrate to New Zealand, which gave him and Joanna the opportunity in retirement of wintering regularly in the southern hemisphere sunshine. In New Zealand he enjoyed playing golf and swimming in the sea.

Pastimes at home in Britain were varied, but centred on the outdoor life, natural history and art (painting and marquetry). His grandfather, James Leathart, had acquired a fine collection of paintings and drawings by contemporary Victorian artists, and in 1968 Gilbert arranged for their exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

Leathart also owned, sequentially rather than concurrently, two Rolls Royce cars of 1930s vintage. He might be seen chauffeuring a child to school in a Rolls, or peddling to work himself on an ancient and decrepit bike.

He had a good life, much to the benefit of family, colleagues and patients. He was fast approaching 90 when he died, sadly of complications from knee replacement surgery.

David Hendrick
Sarah Pearce

(Volume XII, page web)

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