Lives of the fellows

Denis Dunbar Gibbs

b.19 July 1927 d.8 January 2015
BA Oxon(1949) BM BCh(1952) MRCP(1955) DCH(1957) DM(1962) FRCP(1973) DHMSA(1989)

Denis Gibbs was a consultant physician in general medicine and gastroenterology at the London Hospital. He was born in London and educated at Ruzawi School, Southern Rhodesia, and at Diocesan College (or ‘Bishops’), Rondebosch, Cape Town, South Africa. He was the eldest of five children of the Very Reverend Michael McCausland Gibbs, who was appointed to the staff of the Anglican cathedral in Salisbury and in due course became dean of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, and then dean of Chester. As a young curate in Putney Denis’ father married Edith Marjorie Ward, who had been a medical student at Oxford. He was related to the merchant banking branch of the Gibbs family and further back could claim Richard Bright [Munk’s Roll, Vol.III, p.155] as an ancestor.

From school he went initially to the University of Cape Town Medical School, where he won a scholarship in anatomy and physiology before, in 1948, starting again as a medical student at Keble College, Oxford, where his father and grandfather had been undergraduates and where he could claim ‘founders’ kin’, an anachronistic privilege.

During clinical training at St Mary’s Hospital, he gained prizes in surgery and social medicine and, after qualification, held prestigious junior posts at St Mary’s, Hillingdon Hospital, the Radcliffe Infirmary (under L J Witts [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.618]), Maida Vale Hospital (under Sir Russell Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60]) and the Hammersmith Hospital (under John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341]). He was then a registrar and senior registrar at the London Hospital (under Archibald Clark-Kennedy [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.88] and Norman Lloyd Rusby [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.427]).

National Service was spent as a squadron leader (medical specialist) at RAF Hospital, Cosford.

In 1962 he was awarded a Fulbright travel award to the USA and a trainee research grant, US Public Health Service, spending a year as a fellow in medicine (gastroenterology) at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital and Boston City Hospital (with Franz Ingelfinger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.296]).

Finishing his training back in the UK at King George Hospital, Ilford, and as a clinical assistant at St Mark’s, he was appointed as a consultant physician at Good Hope District General Hospital, Sutton Coldfield, and the North Birmingham Group of Hospitals in 1965. In 1974 he returned to the London Hospital as a consultant physician, where he spent the rest of his professional life.

External appointments followed. For the Royal College of Physicians he was a regional adviser and served on its historical resources panel. He was an examiner in medicine for the universities of London, Liverpool, Oxford, Basra (Iraq) and for the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board. Sponsored by the British Council, he visited India on three occasions in the 1980s to help examiners construct examination questions. Between 1977 and 1999 he was chief medical adviser to Provident Life Association and Winterthur Life.

Denis undertook his fair share of administrative duties, serving on several management committees in Sutton Coldfield, while at the London he was sometime chairman of the medical staff committee, the department of medicine, the department of gastroenterology and the district medicines committee, which published the London Hospital formulary (first edition, 1982).

Writing, each page being meticulously refined through many drafts and each fact being scrupulously referenced, was a great interest. He contributed chapters on clinical subjects to at least 10 books and memoranda, and almost 30 papers to medical journals. There were numerous book reviews, obituaries, entries in Munk’s Roll and the New Dictionary of National Biography. His first book, Exfoliative cytology of the stomach (London, Butterworths, 1968), which was based on his DM thesis, was for many years the definitive text. Inevitably it contained a full history of gastric cytology. Denis was one of the first gastroenterologists in England to have access to a combined fibrescope and gastric camera, using it to diagnose gastric cancer through stomach washings. Naturally he was a founder member of the British Society of Digestive Endoscopy.

Medicine was but one of his interests. In 1982 he held a photographic exhibition ‘Wildlife in a Hackney garden’ in a gallery in Stoke Newington and wherever he travelled he took his camera, using photographs to illustrate ‘fillers’ for the Journal of Medical Biography, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians.

The study of the history of medicine was a passion throughout his life, consolidated by a Wellcome Grant for research in medical history in 1970 and the Medicine-Gilliland travelling fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1983. In Staffordshire he wrote about the history of Lichfield and some of its inhabitants, including Samuel Johnson and Erasmus Darwin. By 1994 Darwin’s house in Lichfield had fallen into disrepair and Denis was part of a small group of Darwin experts who, with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, raised over one million pounds to restore the house and open it to the public as a museum and research centre.

The study of Sir John Floyer’s life and work, another Lichfield doctor, engrossed Denis for many years and made him the world expert on Floyer’s practice. The book Advice to a young physician, and other essays by Sir John Floyer MD (1649-1734) of Lichfield in Staffordshire (York, William Sessions, 2007), edited and comprehensively introduced in conjunction with Philip K Wilson, shows how erudition and scholarship does not exclude accessibility and interest, and how well medical history can be written by a clinician.

As well as giving many invited lectures on the history of medicine and several contributions to the historical resources meetings at the Royal College of Physicians, Denis published some 50 papers on the subject. Favourite interests included the history of the East End of London and the London Hospital, which culminated in Emblems, tokens and tickets of the London Hospital (1740-1983) and the London Hospital Medical College (1785-1985) (London, London Hospital Medical College, 1985). He lectured and examined for the diploma of the history of medicine at the Society of Apothecaries and served as president of its faculty of the history and philosophy of medicine and pharmacy, being elected an honorary fellow in 2001. Other presidencies included the section of the history of medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine (from 1993 to 1994) and the British Society for the History of Medicine (from 2000 to 2003).

Denis was a bibliophile. Whenever money became available, and often when it did not, he bought books. In a letter to an Italian bookseller in 1986 he said that he was trying to ‘recreate the library of a provincial English physician of the early 18th century’. This ambition was fully achieved with a collection of books on medicine, topography, theology and natural philosophy, of which Sir John Floyer would have been proud.

Although primarily a gastroenterologist, Denis was also one of the dying breed of general physicians who were much loved and respected by colleagues, general practitioners and patients. Many of the letters of condolence after his death called him a gentleman. With a twinkle in his eye and his obvious compassion, he was a doctor whom others consulted.

Such a varied career could not have been achieved without the devoted support of his wife, Rachel Elizabeth neé Youard, whom he married in 1953 and who survived him. A family man, they had two children (Nicholas Mark and Sarah Mary) and four grandchildren.

John MT Ford
John WK Ward

[BMJ 2015 350 2076 – 18 October 2015; Gibbs Family Tree Dr Denis Dunbar Gibbs – accessed 20 October 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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