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Biographical entry Pickard, Robert Gordon (1939 - 2012)

MB ChB Cambridge 1963; MRCP 1965; FRCS 1967; MChir 1976; LLB Strathclyde.

19 May 1939
Sheffield, Yorkshire
12 August 2012
General surgeon


Robert Gordon Pickard was a general surgeon at Law and Stonehouse hospitals, Lanarkshire, and later at Wishaw General Hospital. He was born on 19 May 1939 in Sheffield, the son of Reginald Pickard and Eileen Pickard née Alexander. He had two younger brothers, Roy and John, who went on to become a university librarian and author, and professor of neurosurgery at the University of Cambridge respectively. An uncle, Cecil Pickard, was head of radiology in Dundee. Robert's father was a headmaster in Preston when Robert was a pupil at Preston Grammar School. He obtained both a state scholarship and a college exhibition to study medicine at Clare College, Cambridge, where he had a distinguished undergraduate career. He continued his clinical studies at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School.

He won the Hallett prize in the primary examination of the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, and secured both the MRCP and FRCS whilst working in junior posts in London, Stoke, Chester and the Birmingham Accident Hospital. He spent two years in neurosurgery at Atkinson Morley Hospital, the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, and the Wessex Neurological Centre, before returning to the St George's rotation (St George's Hospital, Winchester and the Royal Marsden) to train in general surgery. He held a Cancer Research Campaign clinical fellowship in 1973. During this time, he survived hepatorenal failure and hepatitis B, thanks to King's College Hospital's liver unit. Research carried out in 1973 led to his thesis for his MChir, entitled 'The use of xenografted human colonic tumours as a model of the clinical disease; with particular reference to the kinetic aspects'. Later papers reflected his continued interest in colorectal surgery, and the wide range of his other surgical interests.

In 1982 he was appointed as a consultant general surgeon in Lanarkshire. He made a huge contribution to surgical care and to undergraduate and postgraduate training in the area. Initially he undertook a very wide range of general surgical work, with major interests in gastrointestinal and peripheral vascular work, but also encompassing breast, thyroid and paediatric surgery. He had a prodigious capacity for hard work, seemed seldom to be away from the hospital, and caused consternation among the hospital managers by insisting that his outpatient clinics should start at 8am not 9am.

When he was appointed as a consultant at Law and Stonehouse hospitals, gastrointestinal endoscopy was at an early stage of its development and at that time the hospitals had no medical gastroenterologist. Cases for gastroscopy and colonoscopy were added to the end of general surgical lists, which was far from ideal. Robert played a major role in the eventual establishment of a purpose-built endoscopy and investigative unit, shared with a newly appointed gastroenterologist.
With increased specialisation within the surgical service, he focused on gastrointestinal and in particular on colorectal surgery. He was one of those most involved in the development of laparoscopic surgery in the area, and was the first to practise transhiatal oesophagectomy in the hospital.

He was a larger than life character who, with his southern English accent, came as something of a surprise to the largely working class, post-industrial population of the urban parts of Lanarkshire. His evident kindness and concern for his patients soon endeared him to them and to his colleagues.

Clearly his migration north had not changed him, as one of his London colleagues, John Quayle, recalls: 'Apart from his well-known, wide intellectual hinterland, sense of humour and delightful eccentricities, such as his shambolic attire, which only marginally improved for a vital job interview, I especially remember him for his complete lack of pomposity, his warmth and thoughtfulness for everyone regardless of status, his willingness always to lend a hand, and his gentle mockery of the over-assertive surgical stereotype.

On many of my late night duty rounds at old St George's, Tooting, I would spy a distant figure along a long, draughty and otherwise deserted corridor, limping, occasionally shuffling, as the result of yet another masochistic long distance run. It would be Bob, off duty, but looking in on his patients, full of cheer and only too ready to help if an extra assistant was needed with a difficult case. At clinical meetings, an off the wall reference to some related but obscure historic fact would invariably issue from the back of the room, his usual hiding place, which would devastate us all and bring discussion to a halt.'

In Lanarkshire he would often appear to be asleep in some tedious meeting, but had the uncanny ability to wake in an instant to deliver some entirely apposite comment, only to fall asleep moments later. He could often be seen at lunch time in an old vest and pair of shorts running in the country lanes around the hospital. On one occasion he was stopped by a police patrol after one of the nurses apparently phoned to report that one of the patients had escaped and was heading towards the nearby town of Carluke. She mentioned that, if stopped, he might well claim to be a surgeon at the hospital.

From childhood, Robert was an avid reader. He was able to interject valuable comments in any clinical discussion or meeting. His command of the English language was impressive. When linked to his quirky sense of humour, it was sometimes used to bait his colleagues and, in particular, members of the hospital management team.

On one occasion, Robert successfully defended himself in court against a speeding charge. He was able to show that the police radar detector had not been adequately calibrated. Later he found time to study for a law degree. In retirement, he was able to use this to support the ultimately successful claim by the theatre ancillary staff for improved remuneration. Even though by then unwell, he trawled through a multitude of papers on the NHS' pay and grading system, Agenda for Change, and related law in order to assist them.

He enjoyed listening to classical music, and was particularly fond of works by Handel. His interest in art was fostered by an uncle, and his flat in Glasgow and later his home in Motherwell displayed a most impressive collection of beautiful paintings.

He married in 1991, and set up home with his wife Catrina, then a theatre nurse and later a clinical nurse specialist, in a beautiful former manse on the Baron's Haugh nature reserve overlooking the flood plain of the Clyde on the outskirts of Motherwell. They had two children, Justin and Colette.

At a routine blood test three years before his death, he was found to have hepatitis C, most probably due to an unrecognised needle stick injury during surgery. Vigorous treatment of the condition, including the use of interferon, resulted in severe arthropathy, but unfortunately the disease progressed to cirrhosis and inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma. Robert Pickard died on 12 August 2012, aged 73.

James R Wallace

Sources used to compile this entry: [Catrina Pickard; John Pickard; Donald Reid; John Quayle; Jacqueline Goldberg; BMJ 2013 347 5025].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England