Obituary: Dr Bernard Reiss

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The Independent Online
Bernard Reiss was prominent among the doctors who transformed general practice after the Second World War, by introducing vocational training for prospective GPs and pioneering communication skills.

Medicine had previously been hierarchical and, although there have always been humane doctors, in most cases treatment was prescriptive in both senses of the word: with the bottle of coloured medicine, the patient was told what to do. Reiss realised that the spirit of the times had changed.

He came from a long line of Liberal, and later Fabian, active altruists - his father was the founder of both Welwyn Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb - and, from both nature and nurture, he had the ideal background for the new style of GP. Intelligent, warm, modest, humane, and wise, he had rejected all forms of privilege long before it was fashionable; he broke the family tradition of going to Balliol College, Oxford, because he thought that Bart's in London would be more like real life, and he did not regret that choice.

Until the 1950s, going into general practice was regarded as a last resort. It hadn't the prestige it enjoys today and most doctors wanted to specialise. While we students lazed away the vacations, Reiss would go and work for nothing in the Peckham Health Centre, that cradle of the NHS, and he took a higher degree, Membership of the Royal College of Physicians, because he wanted to go into general practice well prepared. This was almost unique at that time, and that sort of philosophy was partly responsible for the resurgence of general practice.

Reiss was a GP in Cambridge from 1959 until his retirement in 1990. He was, together with Ian Tate, a like-minded GP in Aldeburgh, the first Regional Adviser in General Practice for East Anglia. Reiss played a key role in the foundation of the Clinical School at Cambridge University in 1976, and he became the first Director of GP Studies there. He was one of the first to think of general practice as a speciality, and pioneered the use of general practice as a setting in which to teach medicine to clinical students.

Bernard Reiss's diffidence and slowness of speech concealed a rock-hard integrity and high-mindedness covering all aspects of his life. At the Suez crisis in 1956, he was on the RAF reserve and told me that he hoped to be called up, so that he could refuse and go to prison.

I once stood in a queue next to Lord Platt, the former President of the Royal College of Physicians. I said to him, "Your main claim to fame, Sir, is that you've got the finest General Practitioner in the country." He almost burst with enthusiasm and agreed; he said that Reiss would listen patiently to his erroneous self-diagnosis, question him, examine him and disagree. He did all this respectfully but firmly. Platt said that, if the positions had been reversed, he couldn't have done it half as well.

Reiss's wife Margaret was a social worker and they shared a vision of healthcare - giving and teaching. It saddened them to see the changes in the NHS which made it less personal and more money-minded.

Bernard Reiss was right- eous but never self-righteous, open-hearted, invariably unhurried and gentle, lovable and loving. No wrong thought ever ventured anywhere near him.

Bernard Butts Reiss, medical practitioner: born Welwyn Garden City 8 December 1925; General Practitioner 1959-90; Director of General Practice Studies, Cambridge University 1976-90; Life Fellow, Hughes Hall 1981-96; OBE 1981; married 1958 Margaret Boak (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cambridge 2 August 1996.