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BMJ. 2007 April 28; 334(7599): 906.
PMCID: PMC1857787

Beryl Corner

Pioneer of newborn care

Beryl Corner, distinguished paediatrician and pioneer of newborn care, died at the age of 96 on 4 March 2007. She was born in Henleaze, Bristol, on 9 December 1910, the eldest of the three children of Edward and Cicely Corner. After education at Redland High School for Girls she won a scholarship to study at the London (Royal Free Hospital) School for Medicine.

Qualifying in 1934 with prizes in five clinical subjects, she undertook junior posts in London and Bristol. Within two years she had acquired both the MRCP and MD and the following year was appointed honorary physician to outpatients at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Sick Children, the first paediatric post in the south west of England. She was 26.

At the height of the second world war, in 1942, when among many other duties, Beryl was already providing an almost singlehanded paediatric service for Bristol, the city's medical officer of health, Professor Parry, invited her to take over responsibility for the care of all newborn infants within the corporation's hospitals. Without hesitation she accepted. Her first action was to visit Dr Victoria Mary Crosse, who had set up a service for premature babies in Birmingham during the 1930s, and to study her methods.

Returning to Bristol she introduced a neonatal service from scratch with minimal resources: doctors, midwives, and nurses required training, and neonatal records had to be designed and equipment purchased. In 1946 at Southmead Hospital she opened with Sister Luffman the first special care baby unit in the United Kingdom. Two years later a breast milk bank was established. At that time too she introduced an outreach premature baby team of health visitors, able to follow up the infants after their return home. Her own special interest was in the neurodevelopment of premature infants. In due course in 1960, she published her accumulated experience in a classic text, Prematurity.

Beryl's research interests included the management of Rhesus haemolytic disease of the newborn, the use of streptomycin to treat TB meningitis, and investigation into the cause of retrolental fibroplasia. There was also an ongoing study of the four “Good quads” who had been born at Southmead Hospital in 1948. Perhaps, however, she will be best remembered for her discovery in 1949 that premature infants might suffer from bilirubin brain damage and, later in 1958, that this kernicterus might be prevented by exchange transfusion. Another important contribution, with Professor William Gillespie, was of the value of hexachlorophene in the prevention of staphylococcal skin infection in the newborn nursery. She was also in 1955 the first, and it has to be said the last, to use methyl scopolamine in the treatment of pyloric stenosis. In 1956 she was awarded the Markham Skerritt prize for medical research.

In 1945 Beryl Corner was one of the first three women to be elected to membership of the British Paediatric Association. Two years later she was appointed consultant paediatrician to what became the United Bristol Hospitals and South Western Regional Hospital Board. Besides being a clinical lecturer in child health and examiner to the Central Midwives Board, she served on many committees both local and national, including the Ministry of Health Advisory Committee on Prematurity. Abroad on behalf of the World Health Organization and the British Council, she undertook many training projects in South East Asia, especially in India but also in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, and Brunei.

Beryl's distinction was recognised in many ways. In 1959 she was a founder member of the Neonatal Society. In 1963 she was elected president of the paediatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine. Other presidencies followed, including that of the Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism, the Bristol branch of the BMA, the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Society, the South West Paediatric Club, the Bristol Scientific Club, and the Bristol Medico-Historical Society. She was also president of the Medical Women's Federation (UK) in 1968-9, and of the Medical Women's International Association in 1978-80. In 1996 the University of Bristol presented her with the degree of MD, honoris causa, and in 2006 she received at Buckingham Palace an OBE from Prince Charles.

Beryl's retirement in 1976 gave her time for her many other interests. A magistrate since 1962, she was deeply involved in the work of the prison and probation services. She was also devoted to her old school, and served for many years on its council, becoming president in 1994. She was a life member of the British Red Cross and was also deeply committed to the activities of Christ Church, Clifton. A keen violinist, Beryl was a founder member of Southmead Hospital Orchestra and a director of the Bristol Music Club. Perhaps closest of all to her heart though, were the newborn apes at Bristol Zoo, some eight of whom she cared for, including one that was transferred to an incubator in the Bristol Maternity Hospital.

Beryl's colleagues regarded her as indestructible. She took accidents, hip replacements, and an helicopter evacuation following a flash flood abroad, all in her stride. A very small person, her intellect remained as sharp as ever until the stroke shortly before her death. It is hard to imagine Bristol without her huge white Mercedes moving in stately fashion through the traffic without anyone apparently at its wheel. It struck fear into the heart of many a motorist.

Nor were the motorists the only ones to feel fear. When she came on a ward round even the innocent wondered what they might have done wrong. Beryl had been schooled in a hard, male-dominated medical world in which women doctors were not to be taken seriously. She had to be tough to survive; and survive she did in fine style. Yet, to her friends and junior colleagues, especially if they were women, she gave unstinted encouragement. She took a tremendous interest in medical students and young doctors in training, inspiring them with her dedication and talent, and providing them with friendly and sometimes also financial support when the need arose.

Bristol has lost a great personality, pioneer, and friend; while her nieces from America, Jane and Sally, along with their children and grandchildren, have lost a much loved aunt.

Beryl Corner, leading paediatrician and researcher Bristol (b 1910; q Royal Free 1934; OBE, JP, MD, FRCP, MD Hon (Bristol), FRCPCH (Hon)), d 4 March 2007.


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