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Rex Needle: The life and times of a remarkable medical man

Rex Needle's column EMN-150126-165827001
Rex Needle's column EMN-150126-165827001

One of the greatest problems created by the current crisis in the National Health Service is the long wait to see the doctor, now usually weeks rather than days, while even minor surgery means a visit to the hospital some distance away at some indeterminate time in the future.

Those who are old enough can remember the way it was in past times when there was no need to make an appointment to see your general practitioner who also carried out small operations there and then and even dispensed his own medicines. One visit and the job was done.

The reputation of the family doctor was at its peak during the middle years of the 20th century. Never before, and certainly never since, have those in whose hands our lives often rest been so respected and even revered and the epitome of this dedication in Bourne was most certainly Dr John (Alistair) Galletly.

His father, also John, came to the district from Scotland in 1899 and after a spell at Rippingale, took over an existing practice in North Street, later moving to the house and surgery he built at No 40 North Road, and on his retirement he was succeeded by his son.

The young John saw service with the Lincolnshire Regiment during the Great War of 1914-18 when he was wounded and on discharge completed his medical training at Cambridge University and at some of the famous London hospitals, qualifying in surgery, obstetrics and public health, in conditions that had hardly changed since Victorian times. During the bitter winter of 1927, he returned to Bourne to help his father in general practice and stayed, swapping the routine of life on the wards for a daily round of births and deaths, fractures and bruises, mumps and measles, extracting tonsils, dealing with diseases and infections and even mixing his own medicines and rolling pills.

From then on, his professional life was spent in the town and when his father died in 1937, aged 75, he took over the practice and also succeeded him as the Medical Officer of Health for South Kesteven. During his career, he saw innumerable changes in medicine, new drugs, different methods of treatment, remarkable refinements in surgery and the implementation of the National Health Service in 1948 which he welcomed.

Yet he appeared to live in the past and even during his final years as a general practitioner, the room at his home that he used as a surgery remained in appearance as it was when he and his father had treated patients there decades before. A Bunsen burner was attached to the wall and a sink with hot and cold taps fitted into his workbench. On the shelves were bottles of acids and other chemicals, all neatly labelled in Latin, and it was these ingredients that he used in mixing his own medicines, often with a pestle and mortar.

Dr Galletly was a man of high standards, fastidious in speech, dress and personal conduct, always observing the social mores of the time and abhorring any change that might upset accepted conventions. He was also active in public life, becoming a member of Bourne Urban District Council and its chairman in 1961-62, and an independent member of Kesteven County Council being made an honorary alderman in 1974. He was medical superintendent of Bourne Hospital for 30 years and also held several other appointments with local organisations while his private passions were his rose garden, the countryside, old churches and nature conservation.

Dr Galletly wrote his memoirs before he died indicating that he worked long hours to serve his patients and everyone was seen the same day, either at his surgery in North Road or in their own home.

He remembered being called out late at night to confinements in remote parts of the fen, often finding his way there on his cycle with difficulty, guided only by the light of a candle in a distant cottage window. “But always there was the kindness of one’s patients”, he said, “despite their hard living conditions, with no water laid on, no indoor toilets. You always got a cup of tea afterwards and despite the conditions in which they lived, it was always served on a clean tablecloth with a slice of cake or a piece of pie.”

Dr Galletly retired in 1969 at the age of 70, having been practising in Bourne for 41 years and remained living in North Road while the surgery was moved to the new clinic in St Gilbert’s Road but he maintained his interests and a wide circle of friends until his death in 1993, aged 94.

The house was subsequently sold and converted for use as the Galletly Group Practice that we have today, opened in 1996 and now serving a large section of the population. But the memory of the Galletly family lives on in a street off North Road that has been named Galletly Close after his mother, Mrs Caroline Galletly, who was elected the first woman chairman of Bourne Urban District Council in 1930-31.

In his retirement years, Dr Galletly confessed that he missed what he called, the old days and the close relationship that existed between doctor and patient that was often missing in today’s modern practices.

Shortly before his death, he wrote: “The burden of the general practitioner has been lightened very much but is he still as much a member of the community as he used to be? Does he still have to wonder what is meant by ‘the vapours’ or dissuade a patient from the use of bread as a poultice or even goose grease? And will he find a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake for him after attending a confinement?”

Dr Galletly spent his life in the cause of his patients attending and treating whenever the need arose and there seems little doubt that if the system today did not restrict our family doctors to working office hours five days a week the crisis in the National Health Service might well be alleviated.

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