Sir Norman Blacklock

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 12 October 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:810

Naval surgeon who accompanied the Queen on her overseas trips while a professor of urological surgery

Norman Blacklock managed to combine three very different careers: he was professor and head of the department of urological surgery at Manchester University; he was a surgeon in the Royal Navy; and surgeon to the Queen on her official visits abroad.

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He introduced the lithotripsy service to Manchester, which meant organising the purchase of the machine and training staff to use it. It was the first such service outside London, and spread rapidly throughout the country. He did research into renal stones and the microanatomy of prostatic hyperplasia and he recognised and treated prostatitis, a condition that was previously often dismissed as imaginary and left untreated. His work on prostatitis was subsequently extended by others, who have shown it to be connected with prostatic enlargement and malignancy.

Norman Blacklock was born in Glasgow. His father was professor of pathology at Glasgow University, and later at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Blacklock studied medicine at Glasgow University, qualifying in 1950.

He carried out his national service in 1951 in the Royal Navy. Returning to civilian life, he became a lecturer in surgery and registrar at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary from 1954 to 1956, followed by a further two years in Ipswich and at St Bartholomew's. He remained a naval reserve officer during this time, and when the navy needed to expand its cadre of surgeons they asked him to rejoin. He was posted to the navy hospital at Chatham, followed by navy hospitals in Plymouth, Malta, and Haslar, near Portsmouth.

At Haslar he launched the department of urological surgery and continued his research on renal stone formation and on prostate microanatomy and disorders. He became the navy's director of surgical research, was appointed OBE in 1974, and remained in the service for twenty years, retiring in 1978.

Two years before he left the navy he stood in, at short notice, as surgeon to the Queen when she made an official visit to Luxembourg. The Queen is always accompanied abroad by a surgeon of her own choosing. When she sailed on the royal yacht Britannia, which has a fully-equipped operating theatre, the navy provided an anaesthetist. Blacklock, who took diplomatic regard to the Queen's liking for homoeopathy, carried a defibrillator and well-equipped medical bag. The Queen is known to prefer service people to civilians and Blacklock's quiet, kindly, and scholarly nature clearly fitted in well. The Luxembourg trip, originally a one-off arrangement, was so successful that he accompanied her thereafter, including on the many visits she made to celebrate her jubilee in 1977. The Duke of Edinburgh, who famously disappears at the sight of a medical receptacle of any sort, lost no time in nicknaming him Dr Hemlock.

Although he retired from the navy in 1978 to become professor in Manchester, he continued his royal touring for a further 15 years. Britannia was taken out of service during this time, and he therefore accompanied the Queen on the royal flight instead. He never had to treat the Queen for anything more serious than a mildly upset stomach. Part of his duties was to be doctor to the accompanying press corps, who relished his nickname but consulted him nevertheless. He had to liaise with the best local hospital wherever he went, in case the Queen had to be admitted as an emergency, and he was expected to vet the royal banquets. In Belize, Central America, the Queen was treated to the most prized local delicacy, a relative of the guinea-pig, known locally as a gibnut. It was Blacklock's job to explain the nature of the beast to HM. The banquet was a success; the British tabloid press reported the event as “Queen eats rat” and the citizens of Belize now call their favourite dish the royal gibnut.

Unusually for an ex-service doctor, he then entered academic life, being appointed professor and head of the urology department at Manchester University. He was based at Withington Hospital where he set up a lithotripsy service for treating kidney stones. Other hospital regions rapidly bought such a machine and offered a similar service.

Blacklock took occasional time off to continue royal visits for a further fifteen years. He was appointed CVO in 1979 and KCVO in 1993, at the end of his last royal tour, to Hungary. Manchester University has not had a professor of urological surgery since he retired.

He published more than 80 research papers on prostatic disease and kidney stone, including studies on dietary influences. He also contributed to several books.

He was, said his former colleague Sir Miles Irving, “a quiet man for a surgeon; very kind, a gentle man in the true sense of the word. He was a urologist who made major advances in the understanding of prostatic disease.” Noel Clarke, a Manchester surgical colleague, agrees: “Norman Blacklock was thorough, dedicated, and hard-working. He was keen to apply science to medicine, and to introduce new procedures, such as lithotripsy. He was kind, approachable, and mild-mannered. He was an excellent teacher and trainer, and good at allowing people to develop. He had a national reputation.”

He served on committees of the Royal College of Surgeons and advised on medical devices for the British Standards Institution, and was an external examiner for Edinburgh University.

On the afternoon of his 50th wedding anniversary, he fell and hit his head while ascending some steps. He died a few hours later. He is survived by his wife and his children, Neil and Fiona. Norman James Blacklock, naval officer and surgeon 1958-1978, professor of urological surgery, University of Manchester 1978-1991, born Glasgow 5 February 1928, q MB, ChB Glasgow 1950, FRCS 1957, died Portsmouth 7 September 2006.

[Caroline Richmond]

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