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Biographical entry Cox, Robert (1912 - 2000)

CBE 1974; MBE 1944; MB BS London 1935; MRCS and FRCS 1938.

24 October 1912
Batu Gajah, Perak, Malaya
7 February 2000
General surgeon and Urologist


Robert 'Bobbie' Cox, formerly senior surgeon to the Westminster Hospital, was born in Batu Gajah, Perak, Malaya, on 24 October 1912, the son of Irish parents who came from Cork. His father, Robert, was a doctor, and his mother, Mary Ann neƩ Cummings, a nurse. At the age of eight, the family relocated to the UK, to Dulwich, where his father became a family doctor. At this time Bobbie could speak fluent English and Malay, but could neither read nor write. This lack of formal education was rectified at Brightlands Preparatory School, before he entered Dulwich College.

His father died, aged 45, of septicaemia from a carbuncle of his neck. Robert had just matriculated and had, against his father's wishes, but with his supportive advice, decided on a career in medicine. As his mother was destitute, he fortunately gained an entrance scholarship to the Westminster Hospital, commencing his training at King's College. Here he gained the Chadwick prize in both surgery and clinical surgery, the Hanbury prize in diseases of children, and the Abraham prize in pathology. He played scrum-half for the hospital and was proud to become president of the rugby club at a later date, when he made a habit of taking nurses, doctors and other theatre staff to vital cup matches, before returning to complete a full operating list!

After house appointments and registrar training at both the Westminster and Royal Northern Hospitals, with such famous names as A Tudor Edwards, Sir Lancelot Barrington Ward, Kenneth Walker and G T Mullally, he took a well-earned break as a ship's doctor to Shanghai.

During the second world war, he served as a Major in the British Expeditionary Force in France, before going to North Africa and taking part in the desert campaign with the Eighth Army. It was in Aleppo, Syria, that he met Joan Mayoh, a Queen Alexandra's nurse, in 1943. They married in Brindisi, Italy, in 1944, and she became a vital part of his successful career.

Of his experiences in the war he spoke little, although he kept a diary of events which is a family treasure. Clearly, he was affected by entering Belsen; his respect for life and his caring approach pervaded all that he did.

At the end of the war, he returned to an austere civilian life. The governors of the Westminster Hospital wisely appointed him assistant surgeon to Sir Stanford Cade and Sir Clement Price Thomas as a mark of Bobbie's promise and in order not to lose his talents. He was an exceptionally dextrous and precise surgeon; his teaching by the bedside and in outpatients sparkled with humour. But he would never tolerate inefficiency, stupidity or timidity. At these times his twinkling Irish eyes became laser-like.

Although he had a leaning towards urology, coupled with the generality of surgery, his Hunterian Professorship in 1957 was entitled 'The management of dysphagia due to malignant disease of the thoracic and abdominal oesophagus', not a subject for the fainthearted in those days. He was secretary of the section of surgery of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1955 to 1957, and remained an associate member of the British Association of Urological Surgeons, his opinions being highly regarded in this field.

As secretary of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland from 1966 to 1971, and a member of the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons of England from 1965 to 1971, he was widely respected for both his wisdom and judgement. In university life he examined in London and Manchester. But he remained totally loyal to the Westminster Hospital for giving him a start in life - becoming senior surgeon in 1972.

He held other appointments at Queen Charlotte's Hospital and to British Airways. Some honorary appointments he rated above all others, in particular those connected with the Army. He was honorary consulting surgeon to Queen Alexandra Hospital, Millbank, from 1960 to 1967, consulting surgeon to the Army and to the Royal Hospital for Pensioners, Chelsea, making weekly visits. For this he was appointed a CBE in 1974.

From a small flat in Pimlico, he moved to Howards Lane in Putney, where he created a beautiful garden. No evening was complete without a horticultural ward round, usually with gin and tonic in hand. Bobbie was very knowledgeable, often confounding visitors with the Latin names of plants, shrubs and trees.

A keen fisherman, he retired to an idyllic spot by the river Itchen, in Hampshire, where he created another beautiful garden. Sadly, Joan developed increasing dementia, while he underwent a pericardiectomy himself. The need for continuing medication for this and his prostate cancer was a fine balancing act, which he bore with typical stoicism and witty asides. His comments were often pithy and terse, but the delightful Irish twinkle was never far away.

Although small of stature, he was a giant in many ways. Above all, he was a family man with two sons, Robert and Patrick (one a consultant urologist), and a daughter, Rosemary, who became a Nightingale nurse. Initially he cared for Joan in her long illness, until she needed care in a nursing home. Yet during these times, a simple phone call was answered 'How nice to hear from you, dear boy!' Eventually, after her death, he moved to Cornwall to appreciate one last summer with his son and daughter-in-law. Bobbie died on 7 February 2000.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Daily Telegraph 10 February 2000; BMJ 2000 320 1149 with portrait; information from his younger sister Phyllis and other members of his family].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England