An Appreciation: Bob Gray

‘Bob was keenly sensitive to the emotional needs of staff for whom nursing in intensive care during the Troubles was a deeply harrowing experience’


For nearly 30 years Bob Gray was the head of the respiratory intensive care unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

He has been described as a “medical statesman . . . a brilliant clinician and teacher”. Outstanding for his intelligence, compassion, wit, geniality and integrity, he was also an inveterate storyteller and entertainer with a prodigious memory. He was a master of the mot just, immortalised by colleagues who collected his pithy sayings.

In the late 1950s lockjaw /tetanus was almost always fatal. Inspired by research findings from Sweden, Dr Gray successfully introduced mechanical ventilation, only possible with the use of the chemical compound curare, for the treatment of tetanus patients in Northern Ireland.

Of his first four patients three survived. He had earned his Doctor of Anaesthetics in 1953. Formal recognition for research into respiratory failure followed with his MD by thesis in 1961, his appointment in 1962 as consultant and the award of FFARSCI. Dr Gray’s enduring professional legacy is the 32-bed Dr Robert Gray Regional Intensive Care Unit.

Resourceful and innovative, he engendered an ambiance of cooperation and care with a deep concern for his patients and staff.

His extraordinary memory recalled rich quotations from Oliver Goldsmith, WF Marshall and even the lengthy Latin grace said each evening at Trinity.

Bob Gray was born in 1924 in Mountnorris, south Armagh. His father was a smallhold farmer whose people had lived there since the plantation.

His mother’s people, the Pattersons, had sent several generations of sons to Trinity. At the age of 13 he was sent to board at the Royal School, Armagh and the following year his father died suddenly.

It was while there that his main respite was his bicycle, on which he could escape at weekends. He proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin in 1942. He often spoke of the privations students endured during those bleak wartime winters. The early years of his career were an extraordinarily apt preparation for medicine during the Troubles.

The Royal Hospital is situated at the heart of contested and impoverished north and west Belfast. The expertise and facilities of the RICU, were in continuous high demand treating many hundreds of victims and perpetrators. Bob was keenly sensitive to the emotional needs of staff for whom nursing in intensive care during the Troubles was a deeply harrowing experience.

Dr Gray retired in 1987. In 2001 he was conferred with an honorary MD by Trinity College, Dublin. He enjoyed a very happy marriage to Kay who predeceased him. Their two grown-up children are Mark and Brenda.