William Brockbank was the archetypal Manchester medical man of his day and generation. Although he served the city of his birth in many ways his outstanding contribution was to the Manchester clinical school. Significantly, his father E M Brockbank FRCP [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.51] was a physician to Manchester Royal Infirmary, and also for many years chairman of the medical library committee of the University. Both of the interests implied in these appointments held by the father were to be cultivated and extended by the son.
Brockbank was educated at Bootham’s School, York, and Caius College, Cambridge, and spent the clinical years of his medical course in Manchester. He held junior clinical appointments at Manchester Royal Infirmary and also at the Brompton Hospital, London. He returned to Manchester to take up what was then the key post of resident medical officer at Manchester Royal Infirmary. As RMO he was responsible for all admissions to the medical wards of the hospital; a responsibility which ensured that every physician on the staff would have ample opportunity to assess the calibre of the current holder of the post. Thus the appointment of William Brockbank to the staff of the Infirmary at the age of 32 speaks for itself. He maintained a wide general competence as a physician, together with a particular interest in chest diseases - a field in which he contributed to the establishment of a practical regime for the treatment of asthma with steroids. He was a most enthusiastic and effective teacher, with a flair for inculcating a sound clinical approach during the student’s first clinical appointment. He favoured those areas of medicine in which a didactic approach was appropriate: for example, his popular lecture on worms prepared the student to renew acquaintance with them in the ‘pots’ section of the final examination.
Brockbank’s keen interest in both the instruction and welfare of students led to his appointment as dean of clinical studies in 1939. He remained in this post until his retirement from the hospital in 1965. It was interrupted by a period of military service in the Middle East, during which he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in charge of a medical division.
William Brockbank was a central figure for successive generations of clinical students and was constantly available to help with their problems. Although his clinical and decanal work took up most of his time he continued to maintain a lively interest in medical history, in the medical library, and in the general medical life of the city. As a medical historian he gave the FitzPatrick Lectures at the College in 1950 and 1951, the Vicary lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1956, and the Gideon de Laune Lecture of the Society of Apothecaries in 1963. The medical library was under the care of a joint committee formed by the University and the Manchester Medical Society and Brockbank was a member for many years, including a period as chairman. He took a keen interest in the library and combined this with his interest in medical history by setting out, week by week, an exhibition of documentary historical material in the hope of stimulating the interest of students and staff. In the immediate post war years there were still a number of separate societies in Manchester for medicine, surgery, pathology etc., and between 1948 and 1950 William Brockbank set himself a task which is always potentially difficult: that of amalgamating them all into one strong Manchester Medical Society. He was a trustee and committee member of the new joint society and later became its president. To commemorate the bicentenary of his beloved Infirmary he wrote a history of the hospital, characteristically well illustrated, entitled Portrait of a hospital, 1752-1948, London 1952. He also wrote a collection of biographies of the MRI staff, starting in 1830 but prudently stopping short at 1948: The honorary medical staff of the MRI 1830-1948, Manchester, 1965. He was the obvious choice to give the paper on the history of the local medical school, and he did so with wit and erudition.
Outside medicine his interests lay in cricket, water colours, the Manchester Luncheon Club, and the Scout movement - in which he became a district commissioner and was awarded the Silver Acorn. Both physically and mentally he was more of an oak than an acorn, and his contribution to the medical school was stalwart and unequalled. He always greatly enjoyed a dinner party, which he would enliven with a flow of apposite anecdotes. His occasional directness of manner was totally ineffective in concealing a very kind heart and a genuine desire to be helpful. Sadly, he remained unmarried.
Sir Douglas Black
[Brit.med.J., 1984,288,1169; Lancet, 1984,1,693; The Times, 19 Jan 1984]