Lacking in Bedside Manner

I always enjoy this extract from the obituary of my great-great-uncle Dr William Cayley (1836-1916) in the British Medical Journal.

“Cayley’s abilities as a physician were recognised by his colleagues as being of the highest order. But he was reticent to a fault and lacking in the bedside manner and the capacity for small talk that often contribute to popular success. A lover of flowers and the classics, he was an expert mountaineer, spending his annual holidays in Switzerland and the Tyrol. A bachelor, non-smoker and teetotaller, he died in retirement in Richmond.”

C E Lakin, who studied and worked with him, said that William Cayley was always “quick, direct and practical.” He described William Cayley’s ward rounds thus:

“at the bedside there would be a few questions, “a rapid examination conducted with a suppressed eagerness of manner and mostly with closed eyes, a picking out of the hidden feature of a case, possibly another question or two, and then the sudden enunciation of the diagnosis… It reminded one remotely of the oracular announcements of Apollo.”

William Cayley also gave lectures to medical students in an inimitable style. Quoting C E Lakin again:

“The lecturer started with rapid, jerky sentences as though possessed of great eagerness to impart important or wonderful information of absorbing interest, the words tumbling over each other in their intensely eager delivery. A short pause followed each principal sentence as though to give his listeners time to take in what had been so rapidly presented.”

When in my working life I gave training talks to junior civil servants, or spoke at conferences of business or City people, I suspect my manner was similar: it must have been in the genes.

One day William Cayley turned up at the Middlesex Hospital, where he was based, with a smile on his face. When a colleague remarked on this, he responded, “To see a patient at home is a somewhat rare event these days, but this morning I saw two and my dog bit them both!”

A number of Cayleys were noted for being socially awkward, like William Cayley. I would not dream of commenting on living members of the family – not even myself!



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