Lives of the fellows

Frank Sebastian Cooksey

b.3 April 1906 d.29 April 1989
CBE(1968) MB BS Lond(1929) MD(1932) MRCP(1951) FRCP(1956)

Frank Cooksey was the principal architect of modern medical rehabilitation in Britain. What he created has now been adopted by many specialties, and is currently serving as the basis for medical rehabilitation. His influence spread worldwide; no one in England has ever done more to foster the cause of people with physical disabilities.

After graduating from King’s College Hospital medical school, he obtained his doctorate and joined the staff in 1933. During the 1939-45. war, when many central London teaching hospitals moved most of their work to the periphery under the EMS, he was posted to Horton Emergency Hospital. He had the responsibility of building up rehabilitation facilities where none had existed before, at a time when both service and civilian casualties were expected on a vast scale, last experienced in the 1914-18 war.

He was quick to appreciate the multiple problems facing people with physical disabilities and realized that they required comprehensive facilities extending well beyond the hospital gates. What he created became a model for the rest of the country and the foundation of his own distinguished career. He was awarded the CBE for service to the disabled, and in 1952 was honoured by being granted the Freedom of Paris and the Seine for his contribution to people with injuries.

After the war he returned to King’s as director of the department of physical medicine, later to become the department of rheumatology ana rehabilitation, and he took on the task of creating a modern department with all the essential collaborative links within a London teaching hospital which was seriously short of space. It was important, however, that rheumatology and rehabilitation should be placed at the heart of academic medicine and not located in a separate institution as was the case in many other countries. The result was a department excellent in function but, through no fault of his, cramped and inadequate in appearance. Visitors from all over the world came to see Frank Cooksey’s department; on average there were some 1,200 official visitors a year, most of them seeking to learn the principles of rehabilitation and to obtain practical advice from Cooksey himself. In this simple way his influence became widespread.

In 1950 Frank became adviser in physical medicine to the Department of Health, a post he held until he retired in 1972. This gave him considerable authority at a time when new services and facilities were gradually being developed throughout the country. He travelled extensively and learned all the local problems at first hand. He was often deeply involved in the detailed planning of departments with far better physical facilities than his own. At that time, most people seeking advice in this particular field turned naturally to Frank Cooksey.

Occupational therapists, physiotherapists and remedial gymnasts benefited from Frank’s progressive approach to their professions. The immediate postwar years found them looking critically at themselves and questioning their ideas for future development. Frank believed passionately in their excellent achievements but, at the same time, he was a constant critic of palliative, passive therapy and ‘arty-crafty’ occupations. He was a realist, and the remedial therapists respected this as well as his leadership.

It is strange now to look back at the split between physical medicine and rheumatology in the period 1945-72. Frank believed that all recruits to physical medicine should first be well trained in general medicine, and obtain their membership of the College, before studying rheumatology and rehabilitation. He also considered that there should be consultants in every district to promote the care of people with a wide range of physical disabilities, while also following their specialist interest in rheumatology. William Copeman [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.120] and others were then striving to develop rheumatology on its own. In the end, the necessary degree of specialization in rheumatology determined that it must become separate, but it later became apparent that Frank Cooksey and his colleagues in physical medicine had also been right: there was clearly a need for a specialty of medical rehabilitation - much in the mould that Frank had helped to create.

Frank was devoted to his family. His wife, Molly, supported him strongly and shared his constant desire to help others. They had three children, a son and two daughters - and later, several grandchildren. His favourite recreation was sailing, and he was probably never happier than when racing against his friends on the River Alde, with his family as crew.

It is perhaps surprising that a man as humble and mild-mannered could have achieved so much, but Frank was a diplomat to his fingertips, possessed of immense charm, integrity and patience. However, his strongest motivation, and most important characteristic, was his passionate desire to help others, whoever they were and whatever their problems. Benefit for himself was never on Frank Cooksey’s agenda.

D A Brewerton

[Brit.med.J., 1989,299,p.564;The Guardian, 17 May.1989; King's Gaz, Spring 1990,p.35]

(Volume IX, page 96)

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