Lives of the fellows

James Stanley Comaish

b.13 February 1932 d.22 January 2015
MB ChB Liverp(1954) MRCP(1960) FRCP(1974) MD(1975)

Stanley Comaish was a dermatologist of some note, who fostered the surgical treatment of neoplasms of the skin and contributed to the understanding of fatigue mechanisms in biological tissues. Privately he was a lover of music and an expert at both piano and the organ.

The son of John Henry Comaish and Agnes Margaret Comaish née Christian, he was born into a family of Manx descent in Liverpool, the youngest of four brothers. He always liked to be known by his second name ‘Stanley’ (or simply ‘Stan’), a name derived from the 12th century English for stony meadow (‘stan leigh’), but, recalling the Biblical parable of the sowers (Matthew chapter 13), Stan was anything but stony ground as far as his deep Christian faith went. He always had a deep respect for thoughtful religious belief of whatever denomination, and a number of his dearest and most admired colleagues and friends were of other faiths. Stan always saw himself as a research scientist as well as a clinician, and saw no contradiction in reasoning his way towards faith.

The eldest of his brothers showed great academic promise, but died of tuberculosis at the age of 17. This affected Stan deeply and may have contributed to his decision at an early stage to become a doctor. It also profoundly affected his father, a complex man with political rather than spiritual beliefs, and the family suffered financially as a result. When the second son won a scholarship covering tuition to a prestigious private college, the elder Comaish would not allow it, ostensibly because it would have depended on accepting charity for the uniforms. However, in an act of extreme generosity, when Stan himself won a scholarship a few years later, the elder brothers left school early to help finance his studies. He never forgot this, dedicating himself to his studies at the Liverpool Institute. He did find the time, however, to learn to play the organ in his local church. His lightness of touch and full repertoire were impressive and he mastered some of the most difficult pieces with a facility not perhaps known to many of his academic colleagues. His sense of fun showed when he varied the speed of the processional when children left the pews for Sunday school, making them run faster and faster. This became something of an institution when his own children were young.

His academic successes continued and he gained special dispensation to enter medical school at Liverpool University at 16, qualifying at 21. He continued to win prizes there, including one in psychiatry. He was a house physician and senior house surgeon at Birkenhead General Hospital from 1954 to 1955 and then carried out his National Service in Malaya, as a medical officer attached to 1st Battalion Malay Regiment.

He then worked in Ipswich as a registrar, where he first met and fell in love with his senior house officer, Barbara (née Phillips). From 1959 to 1960 he undertook research work in Cambridge. He subsequently moved on to Newcastle, to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, where an academic career beckoned, but in those days raising a family on an academic salary would have been prohibitive. When he went to see his boss, John Ingram [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.252], to tell him of his betrothal, Ingram gruffly replied; ‘I’m sorry to hear it, I had high hopes for you.’

From Newcastle, however, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, to Philadelphia, to work with Walter B Shelley and Al Kligman. He shared duties with an American fellow, Sorrel Resnik, and all became his lifelong friends. Always a storyteller, many tales of his time there grew in the telling, but he assured us it was true that, when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, he hid in the bathroom until he could be sure the culprit had not been British.

He returned to his adopted home of Newcastle, where the brilliant Sam Shuster was reinvigorating not just the department, but helping to transform dermatology in the UK from its descriptive past to an academic and scientific discipline. In the words of Jonathan Rees, who later succeeded Shuster, the department contained a ‘bunch of very good and usefully argumentative souls’ who managed to remain friends whilst pushing each other academically. Here Stan gained his MD for a study of friction blisters in skin and helped to introduce dermatological surgery in the UK, fighting against vested interest along the way and helping to found the British Society for Dermatological Surgery.

Stan was, like all of us, contradictory in nature. He was a good clinical scientist and yet religious at the same time. He could be thoughtful and wise, but was not worldly. Brought up in the austerity of the thirties, the war and then rationing, he had a confused attitude to money. He enjoyed success, but, being embarrassed to spend a deal of money on, say, one solid pair of shoes, he would end up buying three cheap pairs which would not last. Believing in his mission to help any and every patient, he did not always admire the modern attitudes of many of those whom he met. He was religious, but did not always admire organised religion and saw no absolute need for collective worship, but was drawn to church by his adored music. He delighted in combative argument, which some found off-putting, but what could seem like arrogance was based on a real love of knowledge and its pursuit. Physically a small man, his intellect towered. But for all these minor contradictions, he was steadfast in his belief that there is no higher calling than to serve one’s fellow men, unquestioningly, not with words but with actions and hard work, and the practice of medicine fulfilled this completely.

He was survived by his wife, Barbara, also a doctor, two sons, two daughters and eight grandchildren.

Ian Comaish

(Volume XIi, page web)

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