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Professor Dame Carol Black – Doctor of Science - President, Royal College of Physicians; Professor of Rheumatology,UCL

Oration by Professor GR Campbell

Professor Dame Carol Black is President of the Royal College of Physicians of London. She is a native of Leicestershire, where she attended Barwell Primary School and Market Bosworth Grammar School; she also attended Leicester Football Club with her father. Her route to the peak of the medical profession began at an improbable base camp: she read History at Bristol. It seems likely that the analytical skills of that discipline constitute an element that is still present in her professional life. After graduating she stayed on at Bristol to take a diploma in medical social work, also serving as president of the Students’ Union; this was the 1960s, so perhaps we may imagine Dame Carol as a radical idealist; certainly bold, radical thought and idealism are still part of her makeup.

On a trajectory that now seems inevitable, Carol Black enrolled as what would now be called a mature student of medicine at Bristol. This was at a time when medical schools had gender quotas and age limits as part of their admissions policies. Nonetheless, she secured a place and she flourished, working during the vacations as a ward orderly in Leicester Royal Infirmary. The question of women in medicine is one to which she was to return as a public figure: in a widely-quoted statement that was both misunderstood and misrepresented, she suggested that the large number of women now going into medicine could see the profession being downgraded and becoming less influential. This was taken quite wrongly to imply that fewer women should enter medicine.

At Bristol Carol Black trained with Alan Read, the Professor of Medicine, and found herself drawn to rheumatology and connective tissue disorders; these have proved to be the interests of an entire career, and she has moved both forward. After Bristol she moved to Taplow, where she worked with Barbara Ansell, and then to the Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith. Her clinical work during this period gave rise to a research interest in systemic sclerosis, a disorder that frustrated attempts to alleviate its spread through the body, because it was imperfectly understood. Her unit at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead has become the European centre for clinical care and research into this condition.

One of the paradoxes of careers in medicine is that its finest clinicians and researchers achieve a pre-eminence that takes them away for substantial portions of their working weeks from their clinical and scientific work. Ten years ago Carol Black was elected to the Council of the Royal College of Physicians, and in 1999 she was elected Clinical Vice President in 1999. In 2002 she was elected President of the Royal College of Physicians. The assumption of this role inevitably leads to a burgeoning of invitations to serve on other bodies, including, in Dame Carol’s case, the Council of the Academy of Medical Science, the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Council, the National Leadership Network for Health and Social Care, the NHS Widening Participation in Learning Strategy Unit, the National Specialist Commissioning Advisory Group, the Medical Leaders Professional Council of the British Association of Medical Managers, the UK Clinical Research Collaborative and the Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board. She also serves as a Trustee of the Tancred Charity and the Picker Institute of Europe, and as a Governor of The Health Foundation and Goodenough College. Talented members of such bodies inevitably are good targets for positions of responsibility, so she has become Co-Chair of the Physiological Measurement Leadership Group, Vice Chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Chair of the Federation of Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom. One wonders when she has time to sleep, much less practise medicine. Somehow she manages, on top of these and other responsibilities, to write scientific and medical papers, and to indulge passions for long distance walking, theatre, opera and house renovation.

Inevitably, she has been honoured. Dame Carol is a Master of the American College of Physicians and a Fellow of 15 Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties; she is even a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute, an honour that one does not ordinarily associate with medicine. In 2005 she became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of Senate and Council, I present to you Dame Carol Black, that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Science.

  • GR Campbell
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