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Biographical entry Zachary, Robert Bransby (1913 - 1999)

MRCS 1941; FRCS 1943; BPharm Leeds 1935; MB ChB 1940; LRCP 1941; FRCS Ireland 1972.

1 March 1913
1 February 1999
Grand Falls, Newfoundland
Orthopaedic surgeon and Paediatric surgeon


Bob Zachary was a pioneer of paediatric surgery in the United Kingdom. He was born in Pudsey, near Leeds, on 1 March 1913, the son of Samuel John Zachary, a dentist, and Priscilla Mary née Owen. After a degree in pharmacy, he turned his attention to medicine, entering the medical school at Leeds and qualifying with first class honours and the gold medal, as well as prizes in clinical medicine and surgery. After passing the FRCS in 1943, he at first intended to specialise in orthopaedics in the Nuffield department at Oxford, and was awarded an Hunterian Professorship in 1944 for his research on peripheral nerve injuries. In 1945, he changed to paediatric surgery and, with a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, went to the Children's Hospital, Boston, to train. In 1947, he was appointed consultant paediatric surgeon at the Children's Hospital, Sheffield, the only British consultant in paediatric surgery not to have been trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital by Denis Browne. In 1953 Zachary was one of the small group of dedicated surgeons who formed the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, the first and still the only international association of its kind.

He campaigned for a monopoly of neonatal surgery for the paediatric surgeons, in order to accumulate sufficient volume and variety of this work to maintain the expertise of the unit. As Chairman of the Specialist Advisory Committee he stressed the need for specialist centres to provide training for future generations of paediatric surgeons, and to carry out essential research and development to promote the specialty. One of his great contributions was to provide opportunities for UK training for trainees from abroad who were frequently grateful not only for professional guidance, but for personal financial assistance.

In addition to being a surgeon of superb technical ability, and a champion for surgery of the newborn, his main contribution was in the management of children born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. It was in this field that he made his international reputation, promoting early closure of the myelomeningocele, active treatment of the associated hydrocephalus, close follow up, and aggressive management of orthopaedic, renal and intestinal problems. Zachary felt strongly that every child, however handicapped, deserved the best available care. He was a founder member of the Society for Research into Hydrocephalus and Spina Bifida, of which he was Chairman from 1969 to 1971.

A 'hands-on' surgeon and a superb teacher, he once recalled of his training period in Boston: "I remember on one occasion washing out the rectum of a baby with Hirshsprung's disease at 2 am in the morning and asking myself, 'Have I come 3,000 miles to wash out a rectum': the answer was 'yes', because by doing that procedure myself I know exactly how to tell others to do it".

Thanks to a severe scoliosis, he appeared short in stature, but he had a giant personality, and such was his charisma that patients and parents seldom noticed his spinal problem: when asked which doctor had seen the child at the last outpatient visit, the parents would say "the man with the glasses", never "the man with the hump".

Bob Zachary was President of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons from 1962 to 1963. He was in great demand as a guest speaker, often giving the lecture in the mother tongue of his host country, whether it was Russia, Poland or Czechoslovakia. He received numerous awards and degrees, including an honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the surgical section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, honorary membership of the American, French and Czechoslovakian Pediatric Surgical Associations, and the Denis Brown gold medal of British Association of Paediatric Surgeons in 1977. He was awarded a personal Chair in Paediatric Surgery from the University of Sheffield in 1976. A devout Roman Catholic, he was a member of the Catenian Association of Catholic Professionals and vice-president of Life. In 1977, he was created a Papal Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory with Star.

He married his theatre sister Faith Alice Stewart in 1943, and nursed her during her last five years of cancer treatment until she died in 1981. After retirement, he settled in Australia, where he married his second wife, Winifred, who died in 1990. After her death he moved to Newfoundland, where he married his third wife, Janetta. He died on 1 February 1999 in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, survived by Janetta and two sons, John and Christopher, and a daughter, Anne, from his first marriage, all of whom became doctors. There are seven grandchildren - Suzanna, Anthony, Laura, George, Cameron, Tague and Alexa.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Lewis Spitz and John Zachary; The Times 3 March 1999, with portrait; The Independent 18 March 1999, with portrait; Human Concern Summer 1999].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England