Lives of the fellows

Robert Fife

b.23 November 1922 d.27 September 2013
MB ChB Glasg(1945) FRFPS(1949) MRCP(1950) MRCP Glasg(1962) FRCP Glasg(1964) FRCP(1972)

Robert Fife, a consultant physician and cardiologist at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, was widely regarded as one of the outstanding physicians and cardiologists of his generation. He was born in Kilmarnock, the son of Robert Fife, a gas engineer and manager, and Margaret More Fife née Spears, and spent his early life in Ayrshire. He was educated at Kilmarnock Academy, before entering the faculty of medicine at the University of Glasgow in 1940.

After a distinguished undergraduate career and a period of military service with the RAMC in North Africa, his postgraduate training was at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It was there he became interested in cardiology, under the supervision of J H Wright [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.605], an influential figure in Glasgow medicine and in the development of cardiology. Fife was one of his protégés, and this period laid the foundation for his future as a well-rounded physician and cardiologist. All of his training was at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, with the exception of a year spent at Law Hospital as a senior registrar. He was thereafter appointed as a consultant physician and was consultant in administrative charge from 1973.

At that time very few of the current investigations were available and reliance for the assessment of the patient was on clinical skills. Robert Fife was highly skilled and gifted in all aspects of this. Rheumatic heart disease was particularly common in those days and required expert use of the stethoscope. Robert Fife was particularly adept at this and passed these skills on to generations of students. However, his skills extended well beyond cardiology, to all aspects of medicine, and they shone through, reflecting a most astute diagnostician.

The tendency for specialisation in recent years has resulted in a decrease in the development and popularity of general medicine as a career, however, with our current ageing population, the generalist is much needed and this is now being recognised and promoted. Robert Fife exemplified the generalist; he had an ability to look at all aspects of the patient and optimise their management. He promoted what he termed ‘working diagnosis’ and would document this in the notes with his famous red pen. When his trainees documented their diagnosis and he concurred, he would simply write ‘agreed’ with his red pen. This, for the trainee, was the ultimate accolade.

Robert Fife contributed significantly in other areas. He was an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and the Royal College of Physicians of London. He was an examiner for MRCP examinations for many years.

He led in the development of the Glasgow blood pressure clinic executive, and then served for many years as chair. The clinic developed innovative computerised records for patients in Glasgow with high blood pressure, resulting in several key research projects, with the publication of a considerable number of articles. He was also chairman of the influential area medical committee in Glasgow, which advised the health board on key issues. In his various roles, his preference was always for collaboration rather than confrontation.

He was the most likely choice when colleagues themselves were unwell. He appreciated the need for communicating with the patient and providing them with a clear explanation of their condition. Robert Fife epitomised all the characteristics of a complete physician. His colleagues, students and most importantly patients, were all beneficiaries of this remarkably talented doctor.

He retired in 1985 and his wife Isabel (née Arthur) died in 1992. Thereafter, he met an old school friend, Barbara Johnston, and they became close companions. They enjoyed the company of their respective families, travelling, music and the arts. He was survived by Barbara and by his daughter (Anne), son (R John) and two grandchildren.

Frank Dunn

[Herald Scotland 11 October 2013 – accessed 19 December 2014; BMJ 2014 348 7516]

(Volume XII, page web)

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