Lives of the fellows

Robert Coope

b.26 December 1892 d.17 February 1972
BSc Liverp(1914) MB ChB(1918) MD(1919) MRCP(1923) FRCP(1938)

Robert Coope was born in Pilsley, Derbyshire, to George Coope, a coal miner, and Mary Coope. There was an elder brother who died in his teens, and the family moved to Liverpool to obtain better schooling opportunities. Robert gained much from the influence of his father’s brother, Jack, a cobbler who taught him a great deal about cricket - he was later to be a successful slow bowler. The financial circumstances necessitated educational grants, and Robert’s whole career at the Liverpool Institute school and at Liverpool University in chemistry and later in medicine was paid by bursaries and scholarships which he earned, getting a 1st Class Honours BSc just before the ’14-18 war. His 2nd Class Honours medical degree came in 1918 and he then went to France with the Quakers - an experience which no doubt prompted the ideals behind his book Shall I Fight? An Essay on War, Peace and the Individual published by the Friends Book Centre in 1935.

He became a lecturer in clinical chemistry at the University of Liverpool with an interest in gastroenterology, but there was no opening in this when he was appointed assistant physician to the Royal Southern Hospital, Liverpool in 1924, working with W. Johnson the neurologist. He won the Rogers Prize Essay in the University of London in 1926 (The Value of the Various Methods of Investigating Diseases of the Pancreas) and published this in 1927 under the shortened title of The Diagnosis of Pancreatic Disease. At the Southern he came into contact with R. E. Roberts and Horace Mather, radiologists who interested him in the radiology of the chest: he got on the staff of the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Liverpool, and his interest in chest diseases brought him friendship with the pioneering thoracic surgeon, Morriston Davies.

In 1929 he moved from the Southern to be assistant physician at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary where Henry Cohen - the outstanding doctor of that era (and seven years his junior) - was already an established physician. The same year his daughter Rosemary died in his hospital with poliomyelitis and this had a lasting effect on his personal life.

He became a full physician just before the war and no longer did medical out-patient work though he visited the Maghull Epileptic Homes and was one of the first to use Epanutin. Thoracic surgeons formed a team with him as the physician during the 1939-1945 war and this "chest unit" was called the Liverpool & N. Western Area Chest Surgical Unit, EMS. It was directed by Morriston Davies and made up of an exceptional group including Ronald Edwards, Hugh Reid, and Howell Hughes. Their experiences helped them to write War Injuries of the Chest (edited by Morriston Davies and Coope) in 1942.

His book Chest Diseases (first published in 1944) saw only two editions, mainly because it became a millstone round his neck to try to bring it up to date at the time of retirement. But it was an exceptional text for countless students, written in a splendid style and with most careful prose. He thought up a simple test for a man feigning Rombergism who fell instantly to the floor when he closed his eyes - so well done that Robert thought he must have practised it. He got the patient to shut one eye and examined the other with an ophthalmoscope - whilst the man stood upright with no difficulty.

He was an excellent guide to many young doctors and two of his former registrars became successive editors of Thorax. It was typical of him that he should bury himself in his study for a few hours when writing an important testimonial for a young man: it had to be done properly and so he would polish up the writing and go to endless trouble to see that it conveyed exactly his thoughts to a selection committee. He did not give advice unasked, but his considered opinions were greatly in demand years after he had retired and, even in retrospect, were seldom at fault.

He valued his membership of societies, especially as a founder member and later first provincial President of the Thoracic Society (to whom he gave their emblem of a monaural stethoscope), and enjoyed travelling with the Medical Pilgrims and acting as Recorder for some years. He was a member of the Association of Physicians, the Physiological Society, and the International Society of Gastroenterologists. He was an honorary visiting consultant to King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst. He had a spell on the Council of The Royal College of Physicians, and in 1948 was the College’s Mitchell Trust lecturer on Tuberculous enlargement of intrathoracic lymph nodes and its aftermath. He was an examiner of medicine at Liverpool, London, and Aberdeen.

His place in the medical hierarchy can be illustrated by an analogy with therapeutic steroids: others might supply the answers and gain the credit — but stultify their colleagues, as does cortisone; he was like long-acting ACTH and worked by stimulating his registrars to think and do things for themselves. As a junior registrar I stayed with him at Waterloo Cottage in North Wales, built in 1815, and where he lived during the war. This was the setting for the article Rales, Rhonchi and Laennec (published in the Lancet in 1957), in which he entertained Laennec and others at a dinner party. Because of his interest in the history and sayings of medical men he collected scraps of writings and published them as The Quiet Art - a delightful bedside book which can be found in many a doctor’s household.

As an honorary physician he did private practice and this enabled him to run an elderly Rolls Royce, later a Bentley, and even a Daimler of which the engine fell out on to the road. He had a large practice from lawyers who trusted him to apply common sense to a problem in the way that would appeal to a judge. He expressed himself clearly in writing and was an excellent witness in Court, sticking to his careful conclusions. He had some first class rules which he imparted to his friends: he held that you would seldom get called to give evidence if your opinion was impartial, if you never made any claims you could not substantiate, and if you sought to advise the Court rather than help one side or the other. Those who were always appearing in the witness box were often those whose evidence was too partial or against the balance of probabilities. With his clear logical brain he helped to bring about justice in more than one notorious murder trial. After retirement he enjoyed sitting on pension tribunals but was sometimes outraged by an unnecessary pension which - once given - could not easily be withdrawn.

In about 1920 he married Dr. Rosalind Hutchings, daughter of William Hutchings a tanner from Warrington. Their son became a distinguished mathematical chemist, and of two daughters one survived to live in Canada. This marriage was dissolved in 1937 and he then married Cynthia Mary Cripps, daughter of an Essex timber merchant. They had two children - a son now in general medical practice and a daughter who, several years after her father’s death, worked as a secretary at King Edward VII Hospital in Midhurst. He retired in December 1957 with just less than ten years in the NHS, and moved to the Cotswolds to a thatched house with a large garden — to which many of his former colleagues were welcomed. He attended occasional meetings in Oxford, he enjoyed gardening, and he painted for pleasure.

When aged nearly 70 he wrote a long unpublished essay on life, death, and sorrow: "From time to time during the last thirty years I have put down my thoughts about these experiences of mortality. They are no doubt uneven, episodic, and out of proportion, but life is like that. Things ‘crop up’, and a man must make his peace with life and death, joy and sorrow, the frailty and brevity of human life, as they come to him ... He will find, I think, that the crucial matter concerning life and death is whether he believes in God or not".

He moved to Suffolk within a year of his death, and is remembered by countless patients, doctors, and lawyers whom he influenced with his kindly philosophy on all aspects of human behaviour and with his erudite sense of humour.

AJ Robertson

[Lancet, 1, 545, 699]

(Volume VI, page 114)

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