Professor Carol Black

Doctor of Science

2003 - Orator: Professor Paul Dieppe

Mr Chancellor, it is a great pleasure and honour to be able to present my friend and colleague Professor Carol Black to you today.

I no longer know whether I should call her Professor Black, Commander Black, President Black or Mrs Morely.  Commander Black is appropriate as she was awarded the CBE in last years’ honours list.  She is also my President, as she became President of the Royal College of Physicians in 2002, only the second woman to hold that office in the 600-year history of the College.  Last year she married Dr Christopher Morely, who is with us today.  What a year 2002 was Commander/Madam President – three new titles – some might call that greedy.  Of those, Carol tells me that becoming Mrs Morely was easily the most important event of that momentous year.

Carol Black’s fascinating CV may read as the triumph of ambition, drive, hard work and great intelligence over relative adversity.  However, the reality is that she is a caring, compassionate doctor, who always puts the patients first.

Carol’s life began in a small village in Leicestershire, where her father ran the local Co-op.  Her older parents both came from large extended families, who continued in local trades without higher education.  But Carol, their only child, rebelled against this life style.  She was bright enough to get into the local grammar school, but she was also an overweight ‘tom boy’ as a child, who rowed with her father over, amongst other things, boys, and who used to escape from home to take the bus into the nearby town most Saturday nights.  She still bears the scars of those days, most notably from the time that she fell off the roof when trying to get out of the house.

At grammar school she met the first of her mentors – William Gosling, the headmaster, who saw her potential, encouraged her, and made her head girl.  It was there that she also met, and developed a crush on Mr Morton, the history teacher.  Such was Mr Morton’s influence on the young impressionable Carol, that she decided to read history at University.

Thus it was that Carol arrived in the University of Bristol in 1959.  She loved it here, but Mr Morton was not in Bristol, and she soon realised that history was not for her.  She turned her energies to other things, becoming president of the students union, and using that office to try to improve relationships between students and teachers. 

Medicine was what Carol wanted to do, but she was reading history.  So, amazingly, she took on a course in medical social work at the same time.  I’m not sure that I should reveal this, but she only get a third in history.  She also came under the influence of other important people at this time, including Marjorie Tait, then warden of Manor Hall, and the great Dame (then Dr) Cicely Saunders, who initially advised her against going into medicine.  But these two indomitable ladies helped Carol get a place on the first MB medical course at Bristol.

But Leicester Education Authority would not pay for another degree, and Carol and her parents had no money.  In pique, Carol left England, vowing never to set foot in the country again, and took up a teaching post in the Gilbert and Ellis islands.  The next major event in her life was the news that her mother was very ill.  She returned to England to be with her mother and to help her father cope.  She then realised that the pay she had got from teaching might allow her to finance herself through the first year or two of medicine, so she went back to the medical school here, and Bob Coles, then clinical dean, agreed to let her have her place back.

So, at the age of 25, instead of 18, Carol started her medical career.  She tells me that the first day at medical school was terrifying – many of us here can relate to that – but that from day two and for evermore she knew it was right for her, and that she could serve patients well.

But financial factors meant that life at medical school was not easy for Carol.  She lived free in Manor Hall by becoming warden, but owned no books of her own, borrowed clothes, worked as a ward orderly in the holidays, and still only had enough money to live on apples and coffee.  Thus it was that the overweight, uncommitted history student turned into the slim, elegant workaholic in the Faculty of Medicine.

As a house officer on the medical unit she came under the influence of the late Professor Read, and Dr Jayson.  One of the first patients that she had to look after with them was a young girl with the disease scleroderma.  The patient died.  Carol was outraged to find that nobody had any idea why, and that no treatment was available.  From that day on, she vowed to advance our understanding of this uncommon but terrible disease.  She managed to convince Professor Allan Bailey, one of Bristol’s premier medical scientists, that he should use his expertise in collagen to investigate scleroderma, and she completed an MD on this subject, under his supervision.

Carol left Bristol in 1975, and worked at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, where she was influenced by the late, great Dr Barbara Ansell.  She then became a consultant physician at the West Middlesex Hospital where, while doing a full time NHS job, she managed to create a world-renowned clinical research centre in scleroderma.  For many years she worked at an almost unbelievable, manic pace.  Her achievements were massive, but they were incurred at a cost to her and her social life.

In 1989 she moved to an academic post at the Royal Free Hospital, and was awarded her chair in 1993.  She was able to expand her work on scleroderma and became the undisputed UK expert in the condition.   It was for her contributions to this disease, and to patients with it, that she was deservedly awarded her CBE.

However, Carol’s ambitions and drive to ‘make up for lost time’ did not stop at becoming a world expert in an unusual disease.  In 1997 she joined the Council of the College of which she is now President, and in 2000 she became medical director of the Royal Free Hospital.  These election victories came as no surprise to her: she tells me that she has got every post that she has ever stood for.

I hope I have not made this remarkable woman sound like too much of a single-minded workaholic who is only interested in medicine.   She also likes fast cars (which she keeps losing), opera, fine clothes, good living, walking and reading biographies; and she completed the London marathon just a few years ago.  She is great company and a delightful person to have as a friend.  What’s more, the most important person in her life, Christopher Morely, has managed to reduce the hours she puts into the service of her patients over the last few years: this is now just phenomenal, instead of idiotic.

Mr Chancellor, I took liberty of asking Carol what she would say to those in the audience who have just qualified as doctors, if she was in your position.  That was probably unforgivable.  This, Mr Chancellor, is what she said:

“Medicine is a fantastic career, offering huge choices and wonderful opportunities, and it is a great privilege to be a doctor.  However, whatever EU directives might say, it is not a 9-5 job.  You must be fully committed, above all to your patients.  Trust and integrity are of paramount importance.”

Well said.  Perhaps Carol’s greatest contribution has been and remains now, as President of the Royal College of Physicians, her commitment to the service and welfare of our patients.

Mr Chancellor, I present to you Professor Carol Black as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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