Obituaries: Bob Hay, surgeon, athlete, musician and craftsman

Bob Hay, surgeon and athlete. Born: 19 November 1938 in Sunderland. Died: 30 March 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 83

Bob Hay was a special man. An extremely gifted and highly accomplished individual in different walks of life – eminent surgeon, international athlete, talented musician and skilled craftsman to mention a few – he remained a modest, humble and complete gentleman alongside his formidable array of talents. Bob always wore his achievements lightly and his charming company was heightened by an excellent sense of humour.

In medicine, orthopaedic surgery was his speciality and he practised here, in Hong Kong and England, and taught in several countries.

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On the athletics track he represented Scotland six times in internationals, making his debut aged 19 at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff over 440 yards before going on to notch up five consecutive Scottish Championships at his strongest event, 440yd hurdles, often referred to as “the mankiller” due to its strength and stamina-sapping demands.

Bob Hay in action on the athletics track
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Music featured largely in his life; he began playing clarinet at school, later diversifying to include the French horn, bassoon and bagpipes. Bob also played in numerous concerts and orchestras, latterly the capital’s Stockbridge Orchestra.

Carpentry was another enthusiasm, again stemming from schooldays, when Bob found satisfaction working with his hands at woodwork. He made quality furniture, with Bob perceiving an affinity between this and working “with bones” in orthopaedics.

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Robert Lawrie Hay was born in Sunderland, the youngest of three children of Robert and Elizabeth (nee Gilchrist), originally from Glasgow. His older siblings were Janette and Andrew. Father Robert taught at Sunderland Technical College and Bob was initially brought up in Ashington, attending Wansbeck primary school. In 1948 Robert’s work took the family to Glasgow, where Bob attended Melville Street primary. As he found adjustment to life in Glasgow challenging, he was delighted when the family moved three years later to Comely Bank in Edinburgh, where he began attending George Heriot’s; it proved a happier period.

There his love of sport blossomed under the guidance of Games master Donald Hastie, who encouraged Bob “to compete fairly but expect to win”. Although he enjoyed rugby, athletics was his forte, with Bob winning Scottish Schoolboys’ titles at sprint hurdles and 440yd and being a member of successful Heriot’s relay teams at Scottish Junior Championships. In 1956 he was school Games Champion, awarded the Ross Cup for his feat in winning the 100, 220 and 440yd, later adding the high jump and discus. Outwith the sports field he was captain of his house, Lauriston, and played the clarinet in Usher Hall concerts.

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Later that year he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine and as a student athlete progressed his career, competing in the 1958 Empire Games and claiming a silver medal in 1959 at the British Universities Championships over 440yd. That led to selection for the World Student Games in Turin where his excellent opening leg helped the British 4 x 440yd relay team win bronze.

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By then specialising in 440yd hurdles, he recorded the singular feat of five successive wins in the event at Scottish Championships between 1959 and 1963, while collecting medals at 440yd and the decathlon. Bob also represented Scotland in another five contests, winning the 440yd hurdles twice against Ireland and appearing in Scottish ranking lists in seven different events, an important points winner for Heriot’s and Octavians teams.

In 1963, at Tilney St Lawrence Church, Norfolk, Bob married Joan Whittell, another doctor – they met at a medical lecture in 1956. The couple enjoyed a long and happy marriage, during which they had three children, Fiona, Nick and Chris.

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While working at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary the prospect of doing surgery began to appeal and after encouragement from a senior colleague, Bob began as a Registrar in the speciality.

In 1971 he went to Hong Kong to get more experience, spending two years as senior Registrar at Sandy Bay’s Orthopaedic Hospital, carrying out restorative surgery, mostly spinal, on children. In his free time Bob played squash, sailed his Chinese junk and played clarinet in the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

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Back in the UK he took a number of locum consultancy posts, including one at Stoke-on-Trent where he gained experience in hip replacements, a discipline in which he would specialise. Bob then secured a permanent consultancy at The Medway Hospital in Chatham, where he spent 20 happy and fulfilling years undertaking hip and spinal surgery and teaching London hospital students. During holidays he taught in Zimbabwe, Western Australia and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Prior to retiral in 2003 his services were widely sought in the medico-legal field, examining claimants in a Harley Street surgery before appearing as an expert witness in litigations.

Back living in Edinburgh’s New Town, Bob’s interests included golf at Bruntsfield Links, hill walking, following rugby and sport in general, his musical pursuits and sailing. He also enjoyed the family holiday home in Comrie, where his workshop facilitated his carpentry, making furniture, music stands and special “wooden books” containing gifts for important occasions.

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Another interest was membership of the Twenty Club, a discussion group that met in the New Club, while his exceptional memory for poetry meant regular Burns Suppers appearances reciting Tam O’Shanter. His talents also extended to writing a play about Beethoven.

Above all he will be remembered as a loving and much-loved family man of many accomplishments in a well-lived life. He is survived by his wife, sister, children and grandchildren Robbie, Catriona, Tabitha, Caspar and Lawrie.

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