Professor Bernard Isaacs (1924–1995) Post 2

Isaacs, Bernard (1924–1995), geriatrician, was born on 20 July 1924 at 4 Glencairn Drive, Glasgow, the son of Louis Isaacs, shopkeeper, and his wife, Rosine Naomi, née Lion, schoolteacher, and daughter of Jacob Lion, leather merchant of London. Both parents were of Jewish descent. His paternal grandfather, Barnet Galinsky, acquired the name Isaacs on his arrival in Britain from Lithuania. Bernard (whose parents had married in London) had two older brothers and a younger sister. His eldest brother was , virologist.

From Kilmarnock Academy Isaacs went to Glasgow University where he studied medicine, graduating MB ChB in 1947, and MD with high commendation in 1957. In his early years he came under the influence of Glasgow physicians Noah Morris and Stanley Alstead, and later of Ferguson Anderson, all of whom stimulated his interest in the care of the aged and in long-stay care. After national service in Hong Kong and training in general medicine, he entered the still new speciality of geriatrics, in which he held consultant posts in Glasgow, first, from 1961, in Foresthall Hospital, a local former workhouse, and later in the Royal Infirmary. In 1975 he was appointed to the new Charles Hayward chair of geriatric medicine at Birmingham University, a position he held until his retirement in 1989. He married, at Langside Synagogue, Pollok, Glasgow, on 27 August 1957, Dorothy Beulah Berman, a schoolteacher three years his junior, and daughter of Abe Berman, leather merchant. They had four sons.

Isaacs published widely throughout his career. His first book, An Introduction to Geriatrics, was published in 1965. In Survival of the Unfittest (1972), a work that attracted much attention, he reported with his colleagues a study of old people in the East End of Glasgow. This, like all his writings, was characterized by vivid ‘phrase making’ (his own words for the writing and teaching of others whom he admired), and by illustration of ‘hard’ numerical data with case histories of individuals. The first chapter in this report of his research was entitled ‘The fall of Mrs McGoldrick’: it was a parable that illustrated the likely risks of a ‘mere’ fall to health, independence, and quality of life, and showed what could be done to avoid or minimize such risks. He later edited the series Recent Advances in Geriatric Medicine.

Isaacs's Birmingham department was noted for its teaching and research, and for the high standard of effective and respectful care of old people. Among a broad range of interests there was special concern with three topics: falls (he established a gait laboratory); measurement of need for care; and design. He was an ardent advocate of universal design that would minimize or avoid the limitations caused by disability. He argued that, from practical household items to the general physical environment, anything that was satisfactory for old or disabled people was also satisfactory for fit younger people—but not vice versa. Through his Centre for Applied Gerontology he assembled a panel of ‘a thousand elders’, available to ‘pre-test’ goods before they were released.

Conscious of the interdependence of mental and physical disorders in old age, Isaacs ran with the help of psychiatrist friends a regular course on the psychiatry of old age, and in 1979 he published Care of the Elderly Mentally Infirm. The last of his many books (written in retirement) was The Challenge of Geriatric Medicine (1992), which opened with a chapter entitled ‘The giants of geriatrics’ (immobility, instability, incontinence, and intellectual impairment), a phrase he had made famous. This book contained a collection of aphorisms in which he combined wisdom, compassion, and humour.

One of the world's leading figures in geriatrics, and one of its most admired teachers, in private Isaacs was a genial and amusing companion, with a sharp but gentle wit. He cultivated a degree of self-mortification: his cousin Sir Jeremy Isaacs rightly wrote of him that he was ‘game always for freezing cold sea or river bathing, abstemious in his habits … he was a good doctor in exactly the same way as he was a good man, a good Jew, a good husband and father’ (The Guardian, 20 April 1995). In 1989 he was appointed CBE. After retirement he moved with his family to Israel, where he remained active in matters concerned with old people. He died of cancer on 24 March 1995, and was buried in the Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. His wife and four sons survived him.

The Herald [Glasgow] (10 April 1995) • The Times (12 April 1995) • The Guardian (20 April 1995); (26 April 1995) • The Independent (12 May 1995) • J. C. Brocklehurst, BMJ, 311 (30 Sept 1995), 868–9 • P. P. Meyer, ‘Isaacs, Bernard’, Munk, Roll (2000), 248–50 • A. M. Clarfeld, ‘Dr Bernard Isaacs: a giant of geriatrics’, Annals of Long-Term Care, 7/3 (March 1999) • P. Thane, Old age in English history (2000) • personal knowledge (2008) • private information (2008) [Michael Isaacs, son; Lionel Isaacs, son; Alick Isaacs, son; Aubrey Isaacs, son] • b. cert. • m. cert.
U. Glasgow, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Board archive

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Tom Arie, ‘Isaacs, Bernard (1924–1995)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Oct 2008; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed ]
Bernard Isaacs (1924–1995): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/58197