‘A renaissance man’
A TRIBUTE TO THE LATE PROF. GEORGE NICHOLSON
By Prof. Sir Henry Fraser
Retired Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
I first met George Nicholson when I returned from London to the University of the West Indies in 1966, to re-join the medical programme there. I joined the clinical team of Professor Eric Cruickshank and Dr George Nicholson on the medical wards.
Professor Cruickshank was the canny Scotsman, not a lot over five feet tall, with a Scottish burr and piercing blue eyes, while George was the striking Afro-Guyanese, six feet three inches tall, towering over him, with an impeccable Oxford accent and perfect and precise King’s English.
It was a formidable introduction to patients, medicine and diagnosis. They were both challenging – each other and us, the humble students – in every way. What stood out about George was his love for teaching – sharing his knowledge – his encyclopaedic knowledge of the critical issues, of both the common and the rare and the stories that went with them – all told in elegant, irresistible style, with a touch of humour.
He would happily carry on teaching after the morning’s session, so that we, the hungry students, had to beg him to let us go for lunch. And more than almost anyone else at that stage of our student days, he seemed to know it all.
In fact, I have no hesitation in saying that George is was one of a special group of the seven most brilliant people with whom I’ve had a long association – and if I had to rank them, he would probably be tied at the top!
Successful academics are often prima donnas, although many seem to be the owners of a superiority complex, justified by the heights they achieve. George was simply superior mentally … he had no complex! Throughout my professional life at the QEH, whenever I had a really difficult case, it was to George I turned for help and often the correct, though evasive diagnosis.
In my middle years at Mona, at the University Hospital of the West Indies, I had the privilege of being registrar in 1972 to both George and the senior George – Sir George “Champ” Alleyne. It was sheer joy to be part of the cut and thrust of their academic debates and the discussion of diagnostic dilemmas between two such brilliant people. I also became a close friend of George’s brother Alex – a gastroenterologist and research scientist, with a wicked sense of humour!
In fact, George was a genuine Renaissance man, with many other skills and aptitudes … a talented pianist, with long fingers to match; a sports man – good at tennis, and captain of football at Queen’s College, Georgetown, Guyana, and “the stroke” on his prize winning Oxford rowing team, whose task was to find, set and keep a steady pace for the other seven members of the team.
As his daughter Lena said in her remembrance for him: “The position required him to be a human metronome. How like my father to set the pace. How like my father to demand discipline of himself and others. How like my father to be part of a team that won the prestigious Head of the River in 1958.”
And his leadership skills were honed as head boy at Queen’s College. He was one of those individuals whose vision and grasp allowed him to take command whenever needed. He had the first joint appointment in the university, teaching both physiology and medicine at Mona, and, with Professor Eugene Ward, developing the first haemodialysis unit in the region.
In 1979, the challenges and vicissitudes of Jamaica drove him and his family out; and Jamaica’s loss was our gain in Barbados. He replaced Dr Harold Forde as Senior Lecturer in Medicine in 1979. The minute I heard of his planned move to Barbados, I almost ran to the office of Mr. James Williams, our legendary Hospital Director, to ask him if we could move post haste to bring George down, in advance of his post, to plan a dialysis unit.
I was having the challenging task of treating one of our distinguished musicians with renal failure by intermittent peritoneal dialysis and a protein restricted diet, when we heard the good news of an expert in the offing. Within weeks the dialysis unit was being planned. George had worked initially with the late Professor Eugene Ward initiating dialysis at the University Hospital, and he came to Barbados and hit the ground running.
The rest, as they say, is history, and his work in establishing our haemodialysis unit, training the nursing, medical and technical team has been recognised with the rare lifetime achievement award at the celebration of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s 50th Anniversary.
George strove for excellence in everything he did, and he expected nothing less from others, although he rarely showed anger or frustration, merely disappointment if others failed to perform at the expected level. I was deeply moved by many of the things his son George Junior said in his eulogy, but particularly by this comment: “The son of two teachers (one a doctor), he was always driven to excellence, and though he expected it from us, he never demanded it. Perhaps his greatest gift to us was that we were able to follow our own paths, and he supported our decisions whether he agreed with them or not.”
George’s major weakness was the innate privacy of his personality – almost a shyness, which some interpreted as aloofness, or even pride. He sometimes erred on the side of saying nothing or too little, when a few words of wisdom would have been invaluable. Those in whom he confided knew he had a sensitive soul, which from childhood, I suspect, must have been taught to remain secret, and not to reveal the deepest feelings.
Although I knew him so well as colleague and friend, having an office next door, working closely with him on policy when he served as Dean of the School of Clinical Medicine and Research and he and I were striving to bring serious medical research into the arena of health care and academia in Barbados, and visiting his homes in Jamaica and Barbados, I had little knowledge of his really private life, or even of his passion for poetry.
The discovery, at his memorial service at Coral Ridge, that he was a poet of considerable merit but great modesty, was a revelation. I therefore conclude this personal tribute with one of his poems, which was read by Arwen at his memorial service – “Close Sensations”:
Tiptoe through my thoughts
I’ll hear you
Wander through my dreams
I’ll see you.
Love in my world and I’ll feel you there
A thousand miles away
Blow in my ear
Wave me goodbye
I’ll not care
Go to the pole or the antipodes
I can still touch you from here.
George passed away peacefully on July 17th, just short of his four score years. The memorial service at Coral Ridge was a moving, inspiring celebration of his life, with glowing tributes, especially from his children – a rich endorsement of the beauty and strength of family. Our sympathy to Gisela, his wife, and Belinda, George, Arwen, Lena and Maia.