My best teacher

25th April 2003 at 01:00
I went to primary school in a Leicestershire village, then to Market Bosworth grammar school, and the first person who was a real mentor was the headmaster. He was a classicist from Oxford and passionately interested in children from poor backgrounds who he considered should go to university.

Nobody in my family had been to grammar school, let alone university. The only books we had in the house were a Bible and a set of Charles Dickens.

You left school at 15 and went into the hosiery factory, or the boot and shoe factory.

What he did was to tell parents you were going on to sixth form. When they said they couldn't afford it, he would buy school uniform out of school funds. He was such a formidable character that most parents gave in. His name was Mr Gosling and, until he died, we all used to go back and see him.

He had a housekeeper called Margaret, and you'd ring up, and go round, and he would entertain you to tea. He lived for the children who went through his school. They were his family.

I was a good all-rounder and didn't know what to do in the sixth form, but I had a crush on the history master so I did history. It was devastating when he married the domestic science mistress.

I went to Bristol University to do history, and realised I was on the wrong course. There were a lot of medics about me, and everything around medicine seemed exciting, whereas history seemed dry. My tutor said it wasn't possible to change, so I went off and did lots of other things, such as singing and becoming president of the student union.

When I finished my degree, I did medical social work, the nearest I could get to medicine. My second mentor was Marjorie Tait, the warden of Manor Hall, the residence where I lived. She was the single most important person in my life. She'd been a lecturer at London University, and gone to Bristol after her anthropologist husband was killed in Africa.

When I started to realise I could do my A-levels at university before starting medical school, Bristol offered me a place. If I took it, I could become sub-warden of Manor Hall, and have my accommodation paid for, but I still needed a grant. Leicestershire refused me - it was the only time I've cried after an interview.

I went off to do voluntary service, teaching in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. I saved a lot of money because they paid me a full salary. I worked out I could live for a year and a half on this, and wrote to Bristol to ask if I could still have my place.

Marjorie was fantastically supportive. My mother died during my first year back at university, and my father went to Australia, so she was a substitute mother.

The third person who was important was my professor of medicine, Alan Read.

I wanted to be a liver doctor, but he made me realise that I was older than everybody else - I graduated aged 30 - and that liver medicine was full and if I wanted to move quickly I needed to find a speciality where there were vacancies and opportunities.

The rheumatology department was looking for someone to do a research degree. If I did that, I wouldn't be on call, so I could study in the evenings for my membership of the Royal College of Physicians. He was giving me a negative message, but did it in a positive way. It meant I could stay in hospital medicine, and find a speciality with these possibilities.

Carol Black is president of the Royal College of Physicians. She was talking to Hilary Wilce.


1939 Born in Leicester

1951 Attends Market Bosworth grammar school, Nuneaton, Warwickshire

1962 Gains BA in history at University of Bristol

1963 Gains postgraduate diploma in medical social work; VSO experience on Gilbert and Ellis Islands

1970 Completes medicine degree at University of Bristol; takes up first house physician post at Bristol Royal Infirmary

1981 Appointed consultant rheumatologist, West Middlesex hospital

1989 Appointed consultant rheumatologist, Royal Free hospital

1994 Appointed professor of rheumatology, Royal Free and University College medical school, London

2000 Appointed medical director, Royal Free hospital

2001 Awarded CBE

2002 Elected president of the Royal College of Physicians

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