Obituary: Professor F. S. W. Brimblecombe

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The Independent Online
Frederic Stanley William Brimblecombe, paediatrician, born Martock Somerset 10 September 1919, CBE 1975, Honorary Chair in Child Health Exeter University 1978-92, married 1948 Esther Stone (one son, one daughter), died St Mary Clyst Devon 26 December 1992.

IN 1954 FSW Brimblecombe was appointed as the first consultant paediatrician in Exeter. He brought to the job many unusual personal qualities which meant that his appointment had profound consequences, at first throughout Devon and the south- west region, and eventually nationally and internationally.

Freddie Brimblecombe's infectious friendliness and enthusiasm made him popular with children, parents and staff alike. His sympathetic ear and unusual capacity for listening made him aware of the extent of the unmet needs of child health in the community at that time. His enormous energy was used to bring together people whose skills and interests he saw could influence children's health and development. Very soon Devon had a first-class paediatric service (which included one of the earliest special care baby units in the region) and was noted for its caring humanitarian approach, treating the parents as partners and extending its influence widely into the community.

Brimblecombe could be aptly described as an optimistic idealist without illusions and this quality together with the humility so often seen in very able men brought out a wonderful loyalty in his nursing team.

These attributes, which concealed exceptional political sagacity, began to have considerable influence on the committees which could initiate and direct resources and many administrators found themselves carried along into the exciting and unexpected role of facilitators.

Brimblecombe had an uncanny knack of showing them that their problems looked at differently presented some solutions in disguise. He himself became a very skilful chairman and was particularly effective as Chairman of the South-West Regional Paediatric Advisory Committee. When, following the Court Report, the DHSS set up The Children's Committee in 1978 he was the natural choice as its Chairman.

In 1967 Brimblecombe established a paediatric research unit in Exeter and was its director for 18 years. His charm and powers of advocacy brought in over pounds 1m for its work which he directed into such fields as the home care of sick children and the needs of disabled young adults - as well as many of the more traditional paediatric research subjects.

His vision and organisational abilities were well displayed when, with a masterly stroke of serendipity, he transformed a tuberculosis sanatorium (rendered redundant largely as a result of advances in medical science) into the Honeylands Family Support Unit, providing a uniquely flexible caring service for families with handicapped children. This very successful and innovative model has been widely copied both in Britain and abroad.

Brimblecombe seemed to have that rare capacity to learn something from everyone he met and to turn every new experience into a learning experience. As a result his island of knowledge and breadth of vision seemed to grow without apparent effort. Such people are drawn into a wide range of activities and Brimblecombe received invitations from governments and organisations to advise on the problems of children and their handicaps in 22 countries throughout the world. He became involved both at local and national levels in the community in so many ways that one can only pick out a few of them to demonstrate their very catholic nature. He advised the National Children's Bureau, the Health Visitors' Association, the Lady Hoare Trust, the Northcott Medical Foundation, and the Exeter Society for Clergy and Doctors. In 1975 he was appointed CBE and in 1978 was given an Honorary Chair of Child Health at Exeter University.

He was co-author of several editions of one of the most popular scientific textbooks on Children in Health and Disease and contributed a steady flow of over 100 articles and comments to the scientific literature extending over a period of 40 years.

In appearance he was a large man of benevolent expression with a kindly observant blue eye and a frequent and infectious laugh. His clothes could best be described as comfortably deshabille but his mind was always discreetly well dressed. He could on rare occasions be roused to righteous and effective indignation.

It seems quite natural that his energy and wide interests should in 1968-69 find him as WHO Professor of Child Health in the University of Khartoum. Here he established the first Department of Child Health in the university - a facility sadly necessary in a part of the world where children face a tragically high mortality rate of nearly 50 per cent. He earned a great reputation and was subsequently invited back as adviser or examiner over the years on 18 occasions. His reports on the situation were always both shrewd and statesmanlike.

He was a medical examiner for several universities as well as for the Diploma in Child Health and the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of London and delivered eponymous lectures for four Royal Colleges.

Freddie Brimblecombe's zest for life illumined his family life, his work, his friendships and his frequent (but not abnormally skilful) excursions into sporting activities. These always brought much fun, not only to himself, but also to his opponents. His cunning ability to laugh at the bowler just before his delivery resulted in the dispatch of many a full toss to the boundary to the satisfaction and amusement of everyone.

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