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Saturday, 05 February 2005

A slice of history came to an end with the death last week (5 February 2005) of Dr John Alan Pollock (H. 1937-38), a former World War II commando who set up the UK’s first doctors’ deputising organisation in 1960.

At its height in the mid-1970s, Dr Pollock’s ‘clinical organisation’ (as he liked to call it) had on its books more than 400 doctors of all specialities, including GPs, and covered all of south London below the Thames.

Not only did his organisation provide much-needed on-call services for GP practices, it also provided locums for hospitals, which at that time were short of manpower and in need of just such a lifeline.

To doctors, too, Dr Pollock’s ‘clinical organisation’ provided a vital service, offering trainees at all stages of medical education a chance to earn extra money and to devise a more flexible way of earning a living while between jobs and studying for exams. For hundreds of overseas doctors, who were coming to the UK in huge numbers in the 60s and 70s to gain postgraduate qualifications, his organisation was thus a godsend for providing them with invaluable first-hand clinical experience before they could find a permanent post.

A sign of the caring, service ethos that Dr Pollock instilled in his clinical organisation was the fact that he eschewed the term ‘agency’ to describe it. He regarded it more as a not-for-profit body, where the money gleaned from its large turnover was simply the oil necessary to keep its complicated machinery going, not the end purpose in itself. He was proud of the fact that he never advertised.

Service to patients and a good grounding for doctors’ careers were his watchword. This philosophy was evident when he was approached by the UK’s largest locum agency, Aircall, in the early 1980s to buy him out for a not inconsiderable sum. Dr Pollock turned down the offer, telling Aircall that he believed his organisation would ‘give patients a better standard of care than theirs.’ This was not an idle boast, as his home and headquarters in Bexley Heath, Kent, contained rooms full of filing cabinets housing notes of patients his doctors had looked after.

The philosophy behind Dr Pollock’s locum service stemmed in part from its unorthodox genesis. Dr Pollock did not set out to form a locum agency, but fell by accident into doing so when he was engaged on a period of biomedical research (into synthesising the pheromone, androstenol, in the lab) after completing a stint as an SHO in Porthcawl, Glamorgan. He was constantly being asked by colleagues to stand in for them and was consequently asking others to stand in for him. He became so adept at juggling shifts that he decided to make it his second profession.

But Dr Pollock was the first to acknowledge that his organisation’s success was in large part due to his wife, Diana (nee Surtees), who was also a doctor and later worked as a GP in Barnehurst, Kent. During the organisation’s busy years, she worked full-time with him, helping to run it.

Alan and Diana had met as students at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, where they both trained between 1947 and 1953 – Diana having previously worked as the personal assistant to eminent surgeon, Sir Headley Atkins.

Alan and Diana were married while still at Guys’ and went down in the annals of that august institution as being the first students to be allowed to share quarters in the students accommodation, where the mixing of sexes had strenuously been forbidden until then.

In the mid-1980s, they slimmed down the organisation to one offering out-of-hours on-call services to GPs in south-east London. Even after Diana’s sudden death in 1988 at the age of 61, Dr Pollock carried on working by himself, aided by a nurse and a secretary until the early stages of dementia from Alzheimer’s disease forced him to retire in 1996.

But medicine was only one part of Dr Pollock’s career – before that he was a soldier, serving as a captain in the Black Watch and then with No5 Commando.

He grew up in Hove, Sussex, where his father – who served in the First World War as a naval surgeon – was a GP. As the Black Watch were stationed on this part of England’s south coast in expectation of a Nazi invasion, he volunteered to join this ‘local regiment’ in 1941 and was given a commission. He then volunteered to join the Commandos, and successfully passed its gruelling selection and training courses at Achnacarry, near Spean Bridge, Inverness-shire, before helping to run courses for recruits himself.

So it was as a captain serving under the famous Brigadier Lord Lovat that Dr Pollock stepped onto French soil on D-Day at Sword Beach, near Ouistreheim, disembarking the landing craft to the sound of Lord Lovat’s bagpiper skirling away.

After securing the beachhead, Dr Pollock’s company was re-assigned duties and was ordered to re-take the infamous German gun batteries at Merville, set into concrete bunkers on the heights overlooking Ouistreheim and providing a serious threat to the success of D-Day by bombarding Allied shipping.

The Merville battery had already been captured at great cost of lives by the British, who had left without clearing the concrete labyrinth below of the remnants of the German garrison. The controversy surrounding what really happened at Merville is still raging, but when the site was being turned into a museum in the mid-1980s, Dr Pollock was asked to provide voice commentaries for Merville Museum’s audiotape tours for visitors.

After the battle for Normandy was ended in late summer 1944, Dr Pollock’s No 5 Commando was moved to the Far East, where his unit took part in a series of sea-borne landings leap-frogging down the Burmese coast to capture the occupying Japanese. He was then involved in the re-capture of Mandalay.

After VJ Day and the Japanese surrender, Dr Pollock was moved to Hong Kong, where his unit trained up the new police force to patrol the New Territories’ border with China. He returned home in 1947 to enter Guy’s Hospital as a mature medical student.

Dr Pollock was also a keen and knowledgeable gardener, who was able to indulge his passion for trees and shrubs at his home in Bexley Heath, whose grounds he turned into a veritable arboretum, which he was proud to take visitors around. He tended these floral charges with the same loving care he did his patients, often charging out on a freezing night in between answering emergency calls to shroud the pittosporums with frost-proof net curtains.

Sadly the depredations of Alzheimer’s disease forced him to go into a secure care home in nearby Eltham, where he spent the last seven years of his life very well looked after.

He is survived by his two married daughters, Ann and Susan, and four grandchildren.

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