Lives of the fellows

John Bowen Cook

b.16 April 1921 d.18 October 1987
MRCS LRCP(1942) MB BS Lond(1947) MRCP(1949) MD(1950) FRCP(1969)

John Bowen Cook was born in London and educated at Hitchin Grammar School and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, qualifying with the Conjoint in 1942 at the age of 21. The following year, after a single -and presumably eventful - house job in Mile End Hospital, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a surgeon lieutenant. For the next three years, in HMS Orwell, he was involved in minesweeping and escort duties, taking part in the Russian convoys, the Scharnhorst incident and the D-day landings. After demobilization in 1946 he spent the next three years as a medical registrar at St James’s Hospital, Balham, before making a definitive move to Yorkshire to work with the late Hugh Garland [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.l91] in the department of neurology at the General Infirmary at Leeds. Four years later he was appointed consultant neurologist and director of the spinal injuries unit at Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield.

At Pinderfields his abilities as a clinician, a teacher, and a wise and perceptive administrator, soon became apparent and the hospital derived great benefit from his remarkable ability to anticipate the turn of events. Junior staffing, for example, was immeasurably improved by his insistence on what, at that time, appeared to be extravagant upgrading facilities for residents and the establishment of the postgraduate centre which now bears his name. His methods were sometimes unconventional and he was not above telling a thunderstruck regional committee that ‘I meant to say that the Ministry had agreed to put a National Demonstration Centre at Wakefield.’, when it was already half built. With the development of his unit, he soon acquired an international reputation in the sphere of rehabilitation, travelling widely to lecture and to attend meetings. Among many administrative duties he served as the United Kingdom’s representative on the council of the Académie Médícale Européenne de Réadaptation, and as secretary to the research commission on neurological rehabilitation of the World Federation of Neurology. He was also regional adviser to the College.

Like his beloved bull-terrier, John Cook looked fit and fierce but was loyal and full of boisterous fun. He was by no means ostentatious but his appearance, his bearing, and the respect with which he was treated left no doubt that he was the director of his unit. To the timid he seemed rather alarming, for he had a deep forehead, rampant eyebrows, protuberant eyes and a penetrating stare. He spoke incisively, his head thrust forward, yet had a trick of suddenly dropping his gaze to search the floor as if he had lost something. With those he thought to be ‘putting it on’ he could be ruthless - which endeared him to the legal fraternity - and his attitude to paraplegics seemed at first to be unsympathetic. This was a deliberate ploy: as soon as they realized it was ‘their problem not mine, so they’d better do something about it’ his knowledge, experience, and deep personal concern for their well-being became apparent. His clear understanding of what was urgent, treatable or common, made him an excellent but demanding tutor; yet the same grasp of priorities would allow him to dismiss a DPM candidate’s elemental ignorance of neurology with the comment ‘don’t worry - he’s only going to do psychiatry.’

Most of his presentations were enlivened by this same malicious sense of humour. On one memorable occasion he announced that he would speak about HAA, which his audience took to be some sort of drug or enzyme. The first slide showed the subject - John Cook, his face distorted by a stocking mask, clutching his Hospital Activity Analysis number across his chest. There followed a devastating account of the way in which a reject from the typing pool had been left to code the work of the neurological department from an index which only recognized three tumours: Koch’s peculiar, Pott’s puffy and pearly of the ovary. Despite a protracted illness which, in his retirement, deprived him of the walking, fishing and other outdoor activities he loved, he never lost this sense of fun. Shortly before his death a colleague, who had tried to relieve his pain by altering his treatment, asked how he was. ‘Fed up.’ he replied, ‘the place is full of flowers, everyone has been to see me, I’ve summoned the vicar and arranged my funeral and now I’m getting better.’

In many ways John Cook epitomized the great attributes, and relatively minor defects, of his generation. Starting during the horrors of the ‘blitz’ and the Arctic convoys, seeking a job in the chaos of the post-war years and appointed to an upgraded asylum, he knew nothing of postgraduate courses or career structures. Yet he trained himself, forged a fine unit and hospital, and established an international reputation. He demanded the right to control but accepted the conjoined obligations to serve and support his patients and subordinates. He attributed his early retirement to the fact that ‘the scanner has taken all the fun out of neurology’, but one suspects that with characteristic foresight he realized what would happen when administrative bumbledom took the control of hospitals out of the hands of practising clinicians. As usual, he was right.

He was survived by his wife Beryl, whom he married in 1943, a daughter and two sons.

MR Parsons

[, 1987, 296, 70-71; Lancet, 1987, 2, 1285]

(Volume VIII, page 107)

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