Professor Harold Fox
1931 - 2012
an appreciation, by
Michael Wells

This eulogy was given by Professor Wells at the funeral of Professor Fox

(To see the obituary, an edited version of which was published in The Times on 25th May 2012, follow this link)


 Harolod Fox

I have known Harold for 40 years; in the early 1970s, he inspired me as a medical student to do Pathology. His lecturing style was electrifying and amusing. He gave the undergraduate lecture on the Pathology of Venereal Disease (as it was referred to in those days). He began by stating:

 

“Of course, it is not true that you cannot catch venereal disease from a lavatory but it’s not a very pleasant place to take a lady”.

 

Harold spent his entire professional life in Manchester, entering pathology under the tutelage of Fred Langley. The 1970s were, arguably, the golden years of British pathology and Manchester one of the best departments in the country. In those halcyon days, Harold enjoyed considerable academic freedom, spending several months working in Trivandrum in the Indian state of Kerala, living in a house on Kovalam beach, which we visited together with Augusta and Paco Nogales on a lecture tour in 1994.

 

I did an intercalated BSc with Harold in 1973 and our paths crossed again when I moved to Leeds in 1980 and, at the suggestion of Colin Bird, began to take a special interest in gynaecological pathology. Over the ensuing thirty years we attended meetings together in many countries, including Argentina, Australia, Cuba, India, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Singapore (where we celebrated his 60th birthday), Greece (where we stayed and lectured in a monastery) and Hong Kong where Augusta, Harold and I got lost on the Peak largely due to Harold’s insistence that he knew the way.

 

Harold had full insight into the possible consequences of his lifestyle and probably no one was more amazed than he that he reached his 80th birthday. Like Leonard Bernstein, Simon Gray, Beryl Bainbridge and David Hockney, his cigarette smoking seemed to be linked inextricably to his creativity. His output was prodigious and included several textbooks and hundreds of scientific papers, many of which were the result of his longstanding collaboration with Hilary Buckley. He was awarded the Gold Medal for his MD thesis on the Pathology of the Placenta, founded two journals including Placenta with Page Faulk and was made a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. But it was his ability as a lecturer that resulted in him being, probably, the most widely travelled and renowned pathologist of his generation. Like the finest Queen’s Counsel, Harold was well rehearsed and had the ability to dissect the issues and develop an argument, often in a quite iconoclastic, but always amusing manner.

 

Harold will be best remembered by his friends and colleagues for his acerbic wit. At the winter meeting of the Pathological Society in 1987, at dinner in an Oxford college, the first course consisted of a barely poached egg on top of liver pate in a ramekin. Harold looked at this and took one spoonful before pushing it away in his characteristic manner, exclaiming: “Well, it’s only the 8th of January and I’ve already had my worst meal of 1987!”

 

Also in 1987, a contingent of British pathologists travelled by train from Amsterdam to a meeting in Middelburg. Most of us were in the second class carriage, whilst Harold and Augusta were, naturally, in first class. In the course of the journey, Harold deigned to visit us and, looking around the carriage, declared: “You can almost smell the poverty in here!”

 

My favourite story occurred in Karachi in 1990. Arriving on a Saturday, we were taken to the Pearl Intercontinental Hotel which, much to Harold’s disgust had had its liquor license revoked. By Monday morning, Harold was quite grumpy and complained to our local hosts. On Tuesday evening, my phone rang and Harold asked me to go to his room, where I found him sitting on the bed negotiating with a room boy to smuggle in a case of four dozen bottles of beer and he asked me to go halves. Although I could not have drunk such a quantity in the time we were there, I acquiesced and it duly arrived. Next morning, an elderly professor with a goatee approached me at the mid-morning break and declared: “I don’t know what has happened to Professor Fox but he seems like a different man today”.

 

I do not share Harold’s enthusiasm for Manchester United or Coronation Street but, in recent years, the four of us made our annual and hugely enjoyable visits to the Buxton G & S Festival.  We constantly discussed the books that we were reading. His last gesture to me was to arrange a free annual subscription to the London Review of Books.

 

For his 79th birthday, I gave him a copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book “Last Stand” about the Battle of Little Big Horn. I found it gripping, reading it late into the night. Harold took one look at it and declared: “It’s quite astonishing Mike that, after all the years you have known me, you seem to have no idea what I enjoy reading!”

 

I could go on with my amusing recollections of the last thirty years; we laughed uncontrollably on many occasions, usually about some local behavioural idiosyncrasy.

 

Harold could be petulant, brusque and, sometimes, downright rude but warmed to those who did not give ground; he could be disdainful in spades and, undoubtedly, had his detractors. However, the salient point for me is that those who worked with him, often over many years, held him in great affection.

 

Augusta is the one person who would put Harold in his place when he was being unreasonable. The devotion she has shown, particularly over the last four and a half years, has been exemplary; to the best of my knowledge she has had no nursing help at home at all in that time.

 

Following his surgery in 2007, when he could no longer fly and, after years of exotic travel, Harold and Augusta visited more prosaic destinations in the United Kingdom, including my beloved Pembrokeshire because Harold said: “You’re always going on about it”. Subsequently, he gave me a critical account of the two hotels that I had recommended.

 

Harold’s last public appearance, as it were, was in November 2008 when, at a dinner at the Athenaeum, he was awarded the Presidential medal of the British Division of the International Academy of Pathology, for his long and distinguished service to education in gynaecological pathology. Though frail, within one minute of him rising to his feet, everyone in the room was laughing.

 

On these occasions it is usual for one to express humbly how undeserving such an award is. Well, can I say that, in this case, it’s thoroughly deserved; in fact I believe it’s rather overdue”.

 

In 2004, I interviewed Harold for the International Journal of Gynaecological Pathology. I asked him if he had any outstanding or unfulfilled ambitions. Harold replied:

 

“…my ambitions are largely negative: I don’t want to feel guilty about not learning a foreign language, I do not want to take classes in art or art appreciation, I do not want to drink less wine, I do not want to eat more fruit and vegetables, I do not want to take more exercise and I do not want to fly Economy Class”.

 

Harold exuded fortitude and a total lack of self pity in his final illness. He was intellectually sharp and retained his sense of humour to the end when, after some quip, his face would become suffused by his mischievous smile.

 

We shall all miss him a great deal and his legacy will endure for years to come. Even as I say that, I can hear him saying: “Mike, are there any more platitudes you would like to share with us?”

 

Michael Wells

30th March 2012