Hugh Barber was born in Sheffield. His father was Christopher Barber, a stockbroker, and his mother was Mary Priestman, daughter of a railway director. He was educated at The Friends School, Bootham, York, then at Owens College, Manchester and Guy’s Hospital.
Hugh Barber was, in his day, the most distinguished of the provincial — what we would now call Regional Hospital — physicians. This was recognised by his early election to the Association of Physicians and the Cardiac Society. His work on renal rickets brought him national and international recognition, while his papers on cardiac trauma were highly original. So original in fact that many physicians and cardiologists with closed minds were not convinced of the reality of the condition until the more progressive of their professional brethren, like Sir John Parkinson, gave Barber their enthusiastic support.
He greatly encouraged the young physicians and family doctors in Derby, who were keen to maintain and extend their knowledge of medicine. Until his retirement from the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, he conducted a Sunday morning ward round which was always well attended. He was a good teacher and an excellent clinician and, while firm in his own opinion, he was always ready to listen to the young men.
Although too self-contained to encourage intimate friendships, he was a friendly and approachable man. He was a good conversationalist, an excellent raconteur, but nothing of an after-dinner speaker, an accomplishment which one suspected he despised. In fact he was never dependent on audience applause and was content to satisfy his own private standards, which were high. Nor was he moved by criticism and, unaggressive himself, he did not seem to recognise aggressive behaviour in others. He was not a man to espouse causes, fearful — in Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase — that he might thereby find himself ‘a hostage to the enemies of truth’. His grasp never exceeded his reach and his well-conducted life was epitomised by his golf swing — he never lifted the club head above his shoulder. But his golf, like his management of personal affairs, was impressive. At golf, as in life, he was a difficult man to beat.
He had a fine brain and an excellent memory. He could recite long passages from his favourite authors — Dickens, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll. He began the study of music after his wife died and he had a fine collection of records which he knew and understood thoroughly.
He was a man of fixed habits and he would get up from the bridge table at 10.30 pm. Saying ‘It’s my bedtime’. He rose early and would say, a shade complacently, ‘there’s always plenty of time in my house in the morning’. He was a very shrewd man and when he was in family practice he took a holiday during influenza epidemics: ‘Any fool can look after sick people in an epidemic’. Among his many stories was the remark of a Guy’s worthy who used to say to his students at the end of their clerkship: ‘There are two ways of achieving success in medicine; you can be clever or you can be kind’. And turning to the dullest student on the firm, he would say ‘Now you, Smith, can always be kind’. But Hugh Barber would then add the wise warning that if kindness was the chosen path there must never be any lapse from it. One moment of ill-temper could destroy a life-time of good relations.
He was a good family man, and loved his three daughters and his grandchildren. He was very proud of the professional success of his wife, Mary Barber, who became head of the Department of Bacteriology at the Postgraduate Hospital, Hammersmith. They were great friends and inseparable companions. When she was tragically killed in a motor accident, he concealed his sorrow from the world just as he had hidden his pride in her achievement. A true Yorkshireman, he would be sympathetic in another’s sorrow but he sought no man’s pity for himself.
He may not have been a great man, but he was certainly a great professional. Medicine was his chosen path and to Medicine he gave his mind and heart. William Osier was his model, and Hugh Barber would have asked no more resounding appraisal of his own life than that he was a fine physician of the Oslerian school.
Sir Douglas Hubble
[Brit.med.J., 1969, 3, 722; Lancet, 1969, 2, 652; Times, 9 Sept, 1969]