Lives of the fellows

Ralph Ernest Barry

b.15 January 1941 d.10 March 2014
BSc Bristol(1963) MB ChB(1967) MRCP(1971) MD(1972) FRCP(1981)

Ralph Barry, a senior lecturer in medicine at the University of Bristol and an honorary consultant at Bristol Royal Infirmary, was a much-respected academic, physician, gastroenterologist and hepatologist. Born in Middleton, Leeds, the son of John Henry and Betty Barry, he possessed all the best qualities of a Yorkshireman, especially tenacity and conscientiousness. He was educated at Cockburn High School, Leeds, on a scholarship, went on to study medicine at Bristol University in 1960 and remained in that city for practically all his professional life. He did an intercalated degree in physiology, on his way to qualification in 1967, collecting numerous distinctions, prizes and gold medals as an undergraduate.

His early postgraduate training and research took place at Hammersmith Hospital, London, and in Los Angeles, where he was assistant professor of medicine at the University of California and attending physician at Harbor General Hospital. He returned to Bristol in 1975 and spent the remainder of his career on the professorial medical unit at Bristol Royal Infirmary. He became a senior lecturer and an honorary consultant physician and gastroenterologist.

He successfully conducted research across a wide range within his chosen specialty. His MD thesis was on small bowel malignancy. In America, he studied patients undergoing massive jejunoileal bypass for morbid obesity. This led to him publishing extensively on small bowel morphology and the treatment of eating disorders. He also became interested in liver disease complicating morbid obesity and massive weight loss following bariatric surgery. He established a research team working on alcoholic liver disease. He also wrote papers on pancreatic disease, acid-related disorders and cholecystokinin, and contributed to numerous chapters and books.

His large and successful clinical practice mirrored his research interests. He devoted himself to the NHS, to which he was deeply committed, declining private work. He pioneered the joint management (with his colleagues in psychiatry) of patients with eating disorders. During his stay in the USA, he acquired expertise in laparoscopic liver biopsy, and he successfully introduced this technique on his return to Bristol. Ralph’s interest in alcoholic liver disease spurred him on to improve the culture of care for these patients. He developed shared support with ACAD (Advice and Counselling on Alcohol and Drugs) – a voluntary charity devoted to reducing alcohol-induced harm by providing counselling and help for individuals both before and after hospital discharge. This led to a full multi-professional service, including outreach, which was effective in reducing relapse rates and ameliorating attitudes of ward and accident and emergency staff. He developed links with the local authority, helping to draft joint protocols and cooperative working practices. In the same way, later on when interferon became available, he spearheaded the local treatment of hepatitis, developing a service for the local prison and negotiating agreed treatment strategies.

Ralph was an unstinting and rigorous teacher at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. He created an entirely new course to equip the local dental students with knowledge of clinical medicine. He was a prime mover in the development of the Edward Jenner Postgraduate Centre at Bristol Royal infirmary. For ten years he was clinical dean. He served in this role with distinction. He coordinated the European credit transfer scheme. In this role he travelled widely abroad. He also served as an external examiner at Queen’s University Belfast and within the Republic of Ireland. His management skills were highly regarded by medical colleagues, nurses and related professionals, particularly during the period when he served as associate medical director of the United Bristol Healthcare NHS Trust.

Following his retirement in 2002, Ralph returned part-time, doing outpatient and endoscopy sessions. Following this, in 2004, he took up a new role as clinical adviser to the Office of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. He served in this capacity, with distinction, until his final retirement in 2008.

In his personal life, he was a private man, but a warm and generous host. He opened his home to students, colleagues and overseas visitors. Ralph was essentially a kind and loving family man who took great pleasure in spending time with his children and grandchildren. He had a genuine interest in people, and this, together with his humility and skill as a raconteur, endeared him to many.

He was no stranger to personal tragedy. He married a fellow medical student, Ruth Leader, in 1966. She worked as a well-loved GP until she was struck down in 1987 with ovarian cancer. Ralph was left to cope with bringing up three young children, while continuing his punishing clinical schedule. He managed this difficult period singlehandedly, and without the slightest complaint.

It was to the delight of his many friends and colleagues that, in 2007, he married Sandra, his erstwhile ward sister. They enjoyed several years together, tending their beautiful home and garden, which were enlivened with an eclectic collection of alpacas, geese, chickens and cats. He had passions for fly-fishing and walking, and a deep interest in, and knowledge of, geology. His final years were overshadowed by malignant disease, but he was blessed by the rocklike support provided by Sandra during his protracted final illness, which he endured totally without complaint.

Being completely without self-regard, Ralph did not receive in full measure the professional recognition that he deserved, but his reward was in the love of his family, the affection and gratitude of his patients and the high regard of his many friends and colleagues.

Dick Mountford

[Bristol Post 28 April 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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