Bob Mickel was a quiet giant of South African Paediatric Surgery and touched the lives of thousands of children through his clinical practice at King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban. He affected the lives of tens of thousands more through the hands of the surgeons that he trained. Children in Australia, UK, South America, Portugal, Canada and the USA as well as South Africa owe a debt to this reluctant hero.
He taught at the medical school of University of Natal in an easy and laconic style that inspired many to follow his example of dedicated clinical practice. In the operating room he was masterful making difficult procedures look easy and constantly teaching. He demanded the highest standards of patient care and led by example. In 1982 he was appointed the first Professor of Paediatric Surgery at the University but prior to this appointment he had almost single-handedly run the clinical service at King Edward VIII Hospital for many years. He eventually rose to be Dean of the Medical Faculty. He was a founder of the South African Association of Paediatric Surgeons in 1975 and is immortalised on the Founders’ Medal awarded to top performers in the qualifying exams.
But he was more than that. He was a gentleman of the old school with a dry wit and a disarming manner. He was a husband to Joyce and father to Jenny, Suzie, Rob and Sarah and a proud grandfather. He was a musician occasionally playing the organ at his church, he was an artist of no small merit painting landscapes in oils, he was an important cog in the wheels of the Model Engineers, he was a superb chef, could lay bricks, was possibly the world’s worst cricket umpire and had in his youth been an above average gymnast. He was instrumental in the design and construction of the analemmatic sundial in Springside Nature Reserve near Durban and was always on hand to consider problems of any scientific or engineering nature. He was above all a superb raconteur and tales of his medical practice in the bushveld and the early years of the NHS in London and Edinburgh were always self-effacing, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Robert Edward Mickel was born in Johannesburg in March 1927 the son of a mining engineer. He graduated from the University of Witwatersrand in 1952. Having decided on a surgical career he became a Fellow of the Edinburgh Surgical College in 1963. During his training he met and married Joyce in London and they returned to South Africa, and Durban. Having spent time at the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh he was given responsibility for the surgical care of children at King Edward VIII Hospital at a time when underfunding of healthcare for the black majority was government policy. Through hard work and personal sacrifice he developed a service and academic department which was to become one of the leading producers of paediatric surgeons in the country.
He retired in 1989 and was generous with the extra time this afforded him. He was made a Knight of the Order of St John for his service to the group; he served on the Board of the Natal Blood Transfusion Service, on the Boards of Addington and King Edward Hospitals, and latterly the Board of Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital and Hillcrest Hospital. He was a leading light in Rotary and the Probis organizations. He acted as doctor to an Aids Foundation Clinic in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and continued clinical research in the valley into the prevention of HIV transmission. He was made a Professor Emeritus by the University of Natal on his retirement.
Death is inevitable but those of us who knew this generous and gifted man recognise the influence he has had on us and are grateful to have had an opportunity to share his life.
Reproduced from the Department of Paediatric Surgery
School of Clinical Medicine
University of Kwazulu-Natal