Lives of the fellows

John Angus Black

b.11 January 1918 d.21 May 2013
MB BChir Cantab(1942) MRCP(1943) MD(1951) FRCP(1965)

John Black was a consultant paediatrician in Sheffield and an early and distinguished exponent of the medicine of childhood. He was part of that generation of paediatricians who filled newly-created posts in district hospitals following the inception of the NHS, and successfully built up and developed local paediatric services. He also witnessed a shift of emphasis in the specialty, towards an understanding of the impact of childhood illness on growth and development.

He was born in Barnes, London, but was of Scottish extraction. His father, Andrew Hogg Black, an engineer, was a descendent of James Hogg, the Scottish poet and novelist. His mother was Mabel Black née Holder. He was educated at Haileybury, Caius College, Cambridge, where he was a Tancred scholar, and University College Hospital, London. As a clinical student he found himself posted to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, the nursery of English paediatricians, and it was this experience that determined his choice of a career as a physician for children.

From 1943 to 1947 he served in the Army in India, where he was amused, as recounted in his book of reminiscences, by being classed with other medical men as part of a ‘mixed crowd’ (Rather a mixed crowd: military medicine in India and South East Asia 1944-1947 (York, William Saunders, c.2003).

With colleagues, he devised the diet that saved the lives of many of the surviving prisoners of war, whose prolonged starvation in the Japanese camps had made them incapable of digesting the food they needed; this was early evidence of his proclivity for clinical science.

After the war, he was a house physician at Great Ormond Street and later a research assistant and then a senior registrar. In 1954 he became a consultant paediatrician at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, but this did not really suit him, though he did sterling work there, single handedly establishing a paediatric service for Renfrewshire, and becoming concerned about the medical needs of the children of immigrants, an interest he pursued throughout his career.

He returned to Great Ormond Street as a senior lecturer (from 1959 to 1963), and then moved on to Sheffield, where he remained until his retirement. As it happened, Ronald Illingworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.259] had created a very influential academic unit there, including the innovation of a department of paediatric pathology, which provided the backing, as described by Osler, for the development of medicine as a science. Black made himself into an expert in the field of inorganic infant metabolism following a seminal year in Guido Fanconi’s department in Zurich. There followed nearly 100 papers on such topics as renal acidosis, hypercalcaemia, congenital fructosaemia – some careful descriptions of individual cases of what were relatively rare conditions, others dealing with their pathophysiology. His talent for basic research led his contemporaries and pupils to expect that sooner or later he would move on to a chair or readership, but he was not ambitious for status or power, and was content to pursue his vocation, of providing excellent care for sick children and their anxious parents.

In retirement in Suffolk, Black continued to pursue his eclectic interests and there followed a number of carefully researched articles, including papers on a small epidemic of plague in the Orwell peninsular, Malthus (surely a critical topic for the third millennium), the Tancred scholarships and on Dr Caius, the re-founder of his Cambridge college.

Black was also an adventurous traveller, sometimes as a tourist with his wife (he visited Antarctica when he was 90), sometimes following up his professional concern, first developed in India, for disadvantaged children. He occasionally put himself at considerable risk, as when he was smuggled across the Sudanese border into Eritrea during the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, to develop a child’s unit in a cave. He also travelled as a visiting clinician and teacher, in Libya and Kerala.

Black met Dorothy Burnett at Great Ormond Street after the war and they married in 1953. She went on to become a distinguished psychiatrist, and they had four children.

Outwardly diffident, Black was inwardly upheld by the highest personal and professional standards, possessing what might be termed a moral endoskeleton, and impatient of external rules and regulations. He was a good example of the kind of altruistic Englishman who ran the British Empire in its final decades, exhibiting the characteristic qualities of intellect, sensibility and a firm moral conscience.

John A Davis

[Brit.med.J.,2013 346 3811]

(Volume XII, page web)

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