Lives of the fellows

John Fleming Brock

b.27 March 1904 d.3 July 1983
BA Cape Town(1925) BA Oxon(1928) MRCP(1932) MA DM(1935) MA Cantab(1937) FRCP(1938) Hon FACP(1966) Hon DSC Natal(1971) Wits(1965) UCT(1979)

For many years the department of medicine at the University of Cape Town was headed jointly by John Brock and Frank Forman, and they made a formidable team. Forman was an outstanding, brilliant clinician; Brock’s great strength lay in research and administration. But he was also sound, careful and thorough at the bedside, displaying a deep sense of compassion and sympathy for his patients, and he was an excellent clinical teacher.

Brock was bom in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the son of John Brock, a general medical practitioner who qualified at Bart’s and emigrated to South Africa from Paignton, Devon. His mother, Edith Ethel (née Fleming) was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. He received his early education at the Grey Institute, Port Elizabeth, graduated BA from the University of Cape Town and then went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

His early career took him to the London Hospital where he was intern, registrar and research assistant to Donald Hunter and HM Turnbull. From 1932 to 1934, as a Leverhulme research scholar of the College, he worked under GR Minot in the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory at Boston City Hospital, concentrating on iron deficiency and hypochromic anaemia. In 1934 he became the first medical assistant at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith; moving in 1936 to Cambridge as assistant director of research in medicine under JA Ryle.

Two years later he was appointed to the chair of the practice of medicine at the University of Cape Town and joint head of the department of medicine, Groote Schuur Hospital. He at once recognized a lack of interest in research which he knew was essential to a good clinical department; he established a group to work in clinical nutrition, and gathered round him men of the stature of Eales, Bronte-Stewart, Hanson and Truswell.

His 1952 WHO monograph on kwashiorkor remains a classic in the field. He extended the department’s nutritional interests to include the role of dietary fats in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis and the consequences of vitamin deficiency. Driven by his emphasis on research and the organizational flair with which he nourished it, the department in Cape Town soon became one of the world’s leading centres. He achieved international recognition in medical education and community health, especially as related to nutrition.

When Frank Forman retired from the chair of clinical medicine in 1953, Brock became professor of medicine and head of department. He belonged to the senate of the University for thirty-seven years, was a founder member of the College of Physicians, Surgeons and Gynaecologists of South Africa and its president from 1965-1968. He retired in 1970, when he was made emeritus professor of medicine and honorary professor of the history and philosophy of medicine.

He married Ruth Mary, daughter of Henry Lomberg, a mining engineer and manager, in 1933 and they had four children, two sons and two daughters. He was a quiet, modest and gentle man, a little hard to get to know. He had been a prominent sportsman in his youth, representing his school, university and hospital in rugby and athletics, and he continued to play tennis and squash until a late age. He drove himself hard, seldom appeared to relax or take time off, and rarely indulged in small-talk. He was a courteous and sympathetic listener, always willing to advise, and he could be firm when he needed to be. Working in a Government hospital, he felt it would be wrong to state publicly his views on apartheid, but as soon as he retired he joined what was then the Progressive Party and declared his detestation of racial discrimination.

R Hoffenberg
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

[Lancet, 1983, 2, 1093-4; UCT News, University of Cape Town, July 1983, 10]

(Volume VII, page 65)

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