Lives of the fellows

Philip Cyril Powter Cloake

b.29 June 1890 d.14 March 1969
BSc Lond(1909) MRCS LRCP(1915) DPH(1919) MB BS(1921) DPM(1922) MD Lond(1923) MRCP(1924) MD Birm(1935) FRCP(1935)

Philip Cloake was reticent about his childhood and schooldays but liked to trace his ancestry back to the late 18th century architect George Cloake who was well known in his day. Having obtained a BSc at Birkbeck College he entered the medical school of the London Hospital, qualifying with the Conjoint in 1915. After resident appointments he joined the RAMC but was suspected to have pulmonary tuberculosis. Of this he said ironically that a senior physician advised him that the open air life of the trenches was good for that sort of thing and sometimes cured it, but nevertheless he was relegated to home service for the last two years of the 1914-18 war. After demobilization he worked in the psychological laboratory at Cambridge under W.H.R. Rivers FRS, that great and now little remembered original thinker in British psychiatry, and also at Maida Vale with the neurologist Wilfred Harris, meanwhile obtaining the MRCP, the DPH, the DPM, and finally an MD from London University in 1923 for which he was awarded the gold medal.

He was appointed physician to outpatients at the old Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham in 1925, becoming full physician in 1931, and was elected FRCP in 1935. From 1933 to 1946 he held one of the two Chairs in Medicine in the University of Birmingham, his being based originally at the Queen’s whilst the other was tenable at the General Hospital; it is not irrelevant to note that in the Thirties keen rivalry existed between the students and residents at the two hospitals which comprised virtually separate clinical schools, and no doubt there was similar competitiveness between the two groups of consultant staff, not the less intense for being covert. In 1947 he was granted a part-time personal Chair in Neurology, which he held until retirement in 1955 and thereafter in emeritus rank.

His professional stature lay not so much in major contributions to the advancement of medicine or neurology (though his paper with Trevor Cooke on temporal arteritis in 1946 was notable) as in his personal qualities. He had a strong sense of duty, and was acutely aware of the physician’s historically honourable role in society, which made him jealous to guard it from belittlement by attack from within the profession or outside it. This made him a determined counsellor in matters of medical politics and he was widely respected as a skilled committee chairman. He played a part in the negotiations which led to the establishment of the NHS in 1948, for a number of years afterwards representing Birmingham on the Central Consultants and Specialists Committee, and he served the BMA in various capacities, national and local, being rewarded by election to its Fellowship in 1961. He was an examiner for the RCP and was president of the Neurological Section of the RSM, of the EEG Society, of the League against Epilepsy, and of the West Midlands Physicians Association. He was a founder member of the Association of British Neurologists and a member of the Association of Physicians.

As a practising neurologist he was mainly interested in the problems of multiple sclerosis. For much of his career he had been accustomed to work on his own so that his neurological approach was essentially self-taught. He seemed to owe little to the great tradition of the London Hospital, for though he had known Henry Head as a student he had little regard for him and he was by no means an ardent follower of the philosophical doctrines about hierarchical levels of functional organization in the nervous system propounded by Hughlings Jackson, who was Head’s famous predecessor at the London. But when the second war came, which more or less coincided with his own move from the Queen’s to the then new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, he was exposed to the stimulus and challenge of younger American neurosurgical colleagues (working as volunteers in certain shortage specialisms under the auspices of the American Hospital in Britain), particularly of W.H. Sweet of Boston in the period from 1941 to 1945, which brought a new dimension into his thinking. This led Cloake to the early establishment of an EEG department at the Queen Elizabeth, and he quickly acquired expertise in reporting records himself, an activity which he continued with enthusiasm until retirement. He was also forward thinking in planning in 1946 or 47 what he hoped would become a tripartite academic Division of Neurological Studies consisting of neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry, but the project never came to fruition largely through absence of wholehearted University support and consequent lack of proper funding, a fact which was a lasting disappointment to him.

As a teacher he was articulate and lucid and his final year rounds were popular with students. It was never his habit to make them feel foolish and they sensed a genuine paternal warmth about him which was encoded in the epithet "Poppa". He gave willing support to past house physicians and ex-students of his firm, taking it as a privilege that his advice should be sought. His patients revered him, and if he met a difficult diagnostic problem he was always conscientious in worrying over its details until he thought he had it in perspective and had planned the right course of action.

Philip Cloake was a complex man whose strong individuality influenced medical life in Birmingham for thirty years, but he was something of a loner and did not give his friendship easily. In private, off duty and relaxed, he could be a pleasant companion, modest and unassuming, and with a fund of amusing little anecdotes. He had cultured tastes, particularly a love of English literature (both prose and poetry) and was a connoisseur of jade with a fine collection acquired over many years. Yet in hospital affairs, at least in later years, he usually chose to present a formidable front to his colleagues and once said, perfectly truthfully, that none of them, not one, dared stand up to him alone. He was a passionate man, much at the mercy of moods. At such times he could flare into sudden wrath to berate anyone, high or low, it did not matter which nor did it matter who else might happen to be present. His reaction was so disproportionate to the alleged cause that the latter could only have served as a trigger for the release of emotional pressure deriving elsewhere, and from indirect hints one could speculate that his conscience sometimes made him agonise afterwards. He tortured himself over slights, actual or unintentional, which stayed fresh in his memory so that years later he could describe them with as much vividness as though they had occurred the day before. He had great courage, and all who knew him admired his fortitude when in the last few years of his life he had to undergo two serious operations, first for aortic aneurysm and subsequently nephrectomy for a renal tumour which involved hazard to the arterial graft.

He did not look forward to retirement as he felt he was being chopped when still at the height of his powers, but in the event it brought him far greater peace and contentment than he had expected and he died quietly in his sleep, a dignified end. He was survived by his second wife, Evelyn, and by three daughters of whose achievements he was proud. Many would recall him with affection as someone of more than ordinary worth.

Michael Jefferson

[, 1969, 2, 56, 194; Lancet, 1969, 1, 682]

(Volume VI, page 106)

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