Lives of the fellows

Robert Neil Beck

b.2 January 1926 d.28 March 2013
MB BAO BCh Queen’s(1948) MD(1952) MRCP(1952) FRCPC(1960) FRCP(1975)

Robert Neil Beck was director of the division of endocrinology and professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. He was born in Belfast to Matilda Carson and John Woods Beck, a banker. His father died when he was seven. He attended grammar school at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, before being evacuated to his uncle’s farm north of Belfast with his mother and sister May during the Second World War. There he attended Dalriada School in Ballymoney. Despite being displaced, Neil often recalled this as a particularly happy time of his life. In Ballymoney he achieved academic success, participated in many sports, discovered acting and biked in the countryside. Subsequently, he attended Queen’s University Medical School in Belfast, receiving his MB BAO BCh in 1948 and his MD in 1952.

He often related fond memories of Derek Gordon (the renowned neurosurgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast), a childhood friend and fellow medical student, with whom he enjoyed practical jokes and cross-country running. He also recollected jovially jockeying for the number one and number two positions in his medical class with Edwin Henry. In the telling of the story, they always ascribed number one to the other. Unfortunately, job prospects after Neil qualified were poor in his chosen field and the 90-year-old Beck-run medical clinic on North Street was no longer open. After house posts at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and in Liverpool and Isleworth, and a position as medical registrar back in Belfast, Neil, ever the adventurer, travelled to Boston, Massachusetts, USA for further training in endocrinology. He then returned to Belfast for a short time.

In the spring of 1959, Irwin Hilliard, department head of internal medicine and valued friend, invited Neil to ‘cross the pond’ to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he became a tenured professor of medicine with a specialty in endocrinology at University Hospital. He also held consulting privileges with Saskatoon City and St Paul’s hospitals. Despite a keen interest in research, demanding clinical responsibilities curtailed Neil’s ability to run his lab. He offered a meticulous, highly patient-centred style of care and thoroughly enjoyed teaching at the College of Medicine. Neil was instrumental in establishing the diabetic education centre at University Hospital, an interdisciplinary clinic employing the first nurse practitioner in the province.

Neil adapted to life on the Canadian prairies like the proverbial duck to water, tuning up his boyhood skills shortly after arrival and making many lifelong friends. He loved upland game hunting, became an avid cross-country and downhill skier, golfer and tennis player. The arts were one of his passions, which he avidly supported and enjoyed in his community. He also had a great knowledge of and appreciation for architecture, a career path he had entertained in his youth. Throughout his life, Neil’s many friends and colleagues realised that behind his biting wit lived a humble, gentle man. He might make shocking statements to stimulate conversation, but whenever he saw a patient, friend or anyone in need he always, with unfailing courtesy, stopped to offer support.

Canadian life provided an added bonus; in the biochemistry lab at the College of Medicine he met a laboratory technician named Irene Pylypchuk, and they married in 1961. Their daughter, Maxine Beck, now a radiologist in Saskatoon, was born in 1962 and their son, Brian, a mechanical engineer in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1963. Their spacious red brick home, similar to the Beck family home in Belfast, was known for its generous hospitality. The family was and still is active in sports, academics, the arts and medicine – Neil’s passions. His was a life well-lived, and he is greatly missed by his friends and family.

Irene M Beck

[The Globe and Mail 6 April 2013 – accessed 15 March 2016; Queen’s University Belfast Development & Alumni Relations Office Obits Dr Robert Neil Beck – accessed 15 March 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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