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Obituary: Bryan Hibbard

Bryan Hibbard was the first to suggest that folate deficiency might lead to complications in pregnancy, including congenital malformations.

Based at the Mill Road maternity hospital, Liverpool, in the 1960s, at the time one of the largest maternity hospitals in Europe and in an area where a high number of women were poor, sick and malnourished, Bryan witnessed a high incidence of obstetric-related problems including anaemia and fetal abnormalities. He argued that research had focused on  maternal manifestations of folate deficiency yet the effects on the fetus and placenta were relatively neglected.

His ground-breaking research, conducted with his pathologist wife, Elizabeth, was published in 1964 in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and was his subject for the prestigious William Blair Bell memorial lecture given the same year at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. It triggered almost 30 years of research by fellow academics and health experts.

Bryan graduated in 1950 from St. Bartholomew’s Medical College, London. Specialising in obstetrics he moved to Liverpool where he was under the supervision of Norman Jeffcoate, himself a protégé of Blair Bell, a founder and first president of the RCOG.

The history of obstetrics and the lives and careers of Jeffcoate and Blair Bell would absorb Bryan for much of his life. He gave lectures on Blair Bell and his publication in 1988 of the 800-page Principles of Obstetrics for postgraduate students was seen as the companion to Jeffcoate’s well-established Principles of Gynaecology (1957).

In 1972 Bryan accepted a position as Professor of O&G at the University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff. Staying in Wales for the rest of his life, he helped transform obstetric care across the region and significantly reduced maternal and infant mortality. He was at the forefront of using new techniques, notably laparoscopy, and developed distance teaching by teleconference.

Bryan’s work on folates continued, his attention turning to antenatal screening for neural tube defects. In 1991, at the cusp of his retirement, the Medical Research Council organised a control trial confirming the need for folic acid supplementation in pregnant women. In 1995 he was awarded the Rank Prize for scientific excellence in the field of nutrition.

Bryan was a private individual but to those he befriended, he could be unreservedly social. He was adept at drawing people in, giving care to those who needed it and counsel to those who sought it. He was a wise leader with a wealth of experience, well-liked, yet firm when necessary.

His views were sought by the department of health, the RCOG and advisory committees across the UK and abroad. Bryan received many prizes and accolades for his work with characteristic modesty. He was the leading authority on the history of obstetric forceps and curated the RCOG’s unique collection. In 1990 he advocated more research on their century-old design but the idea was unfashionable and he remained a lone voice, even though today about 10% of babies are delivered by them. In 2000 he published The Obstetrician’s Armamentarium, which traces the evolution of obstetric instruments from ancient times.

Being keen gardeners, Bryan and Elizabeth were founding members of the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Their garden, lying in the shadows of Llandaff Cathedral, became a sought-after destination by fellow gardeners. Home to many rare plants, it was featured on a 1986 broadcast of Gardeners’ World and they opened it to the public for over 30 years. Living so close to the cathedral they were involved in the church and the wider community and Bryan was a member of the croquet club. They were active in the Contemporary Art Society for Wales and Bryan collected Welsh art as well as 18th-century drinking glasses.

Elizabeth died in 2019. Her remains, along with Bryan’s, are interred in the Garden of Remembrance at Llandaff Cathedral.

Bryan Montague Hibbard, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (b 24 April 1926, q MB BS Lond. 1950, FRCOG 1965, d 29 September 2021 of Spontaneous Subarachnoid Haemorrhage, aged 95).

By Robert Grassie (nephew)