West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections




Leo Robson, Pontefract Surgeon and Dentist

Leo Robson - Pontefract Surgeon and Dentist
Photograph submitted by Mary Dunkin

My father, Leo Robson, was a surgeon at Pontefract General Infirmary for about ten years, starting in the late 1930’s. During that time he must have treated thousands of patients.

As a general surgeon in those days he did all sorts of operations. Indeed I remember going on a visit underground at the Prince of Wales colliery in the 1950s when I was a young boy. I was introduced to the men working that day; "This is Mr. Robson’s son" – and was amazed by how many of them had been his patients. I remember him being called out late at night for emergency operations. I remember him going in on Christmas Day to carve the hospital turkey and I remember sitting with the hospital receptionist, a lady called Joan Tomlinson. "Name?" she would ask the patients as they registered. "Address?" then "Church or Chapel?" Pontefract was, in those days, a very Methodist town.

My father was a practical man. He loved operating and even devised some special instruments of his own for some tricky procedures. For years, he worked under the senior consultant Mr. Blackburn, and by anybody’s reckoning did more than his fair share of the work. Why would such a keen, dedicated and able surgeon make the transition from being Mr. Robson, Pontefract surgeon, to Dr. Robson, dentist of Ropergate? For reasons which then were appalling and now, one hopes would be unthinkable. He was born in Leeds in 1911, the son of orthodox Jewish immigrants in Chapeltown, which was then more or less a Jewish ghetto. He studied at Leeds medical school, and after various junior hospital jobs in and around London, moved to Pontefract where he lived with my mother, Lorna, and where I was born. We were, as far as we knew, the only Jewish family in the town.

After years working at Pontefract Infirmary as senior registrar, he applied for a promotion where some beds would come under his direct control and thus enhance his income. He was turned down. Then, in 1949 or 1950, soon after the establishment of the National Health Service, Mr. Blackburn retired and my father applied for his job as senior consultant. He got through the first interview but finally was rejected for the job. Why had this happened? He had ten years’ service, he had worked hard and he was well respected and liked. As far as one knew he had many good references from people involved at a local level. The reason for his rejection can be expressed in one word: anti-Semitism.

In the regional hospital board, whose appointment it now was, anti-Semitic ran strong. My father was just one of many Jewish doctors who, at that period, were unfairly excluded from senior medical jobs in the Leeds area. Disappointed, distressed and disillusioned, he decided to leave the hospital and profession he had loved. My mother, who now lives in Harrogate, remembers that a collection was made for him (in the street, she thinks) and she bought two chairs with the proceeds.

My father, now nearly 40, decided that the best course open to him was to return to university and qualify as a dentist. With a young son, and twins on the way, this was a punishing course financially and in other respects. He went to Manchester University, and we went to live with my grandparents. He qualified as a dentist after two years and soon opened in Ropergate, Pontefract. He was well remembered in the town and soon built up a good practice.

I have been a journalist in London for over 30 years and in February 2002 I went to Pontefract to write an article for the Daily Express about the impending closure of the Prince of Wales colliery. Among the people I met was Arthur Withington who had been NUM branch secretary there from 1980 to 1992. I told him my father had been a dentist. "Oh Robson," he said, "I had all my choppers out with Robson. Funnily enough, I’d never been to the dentist ‘til I was 20 odd. I got hit in the mouth with a cricket ball. I had five out then back for some more until they were all out. When I went to him, he asked why I was shivering and I said because this is my first time at the dentist. I thought you could chop wood on me and it wouldn’t bother me, but he bothered me, he bothered me a lot!"

Those were different days for dental health, and for dentistry. My father practised in Ropergate for over 20 years, until his sudden and untimely death in 1975.

David Robson

More from David Robson:

A Seam of Memories and Pride


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