by Alfred Dawes
The field of medicine lost a quiet giant last Thursday.
Although many would not know him, Professor Cyril Fletcher guided the medical careers of generations of doctors trained at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Although he was a specialist surgeon, he gained notoriety as a master anatomist internationally. He knew more about the structure of the human body than anyone else in his lifetime, and likely there will never be another because of how the discipline of anatomy is taught today.
Cyril Fletcher was born in 1939 in St George’s, Grenada. He came to Jamaica in 1963 after a teaching stint in his home country. Prof, as he was affectionately called, made Jamaica his home where he became a father not only to son Dr Carey Fletcher, but to countless others. I recently visited Prof and although reduced by his long battle with illness, he found the energy to speak at length about everything from surgery to music. On his living room wall was a faded picture of two guitarists. Turns out Prof used to play the guitar with none other than Ernie Ranglin. His passion for music we only saw when he would play for us at our annual medical school plays but clearly, he was a cut above the rest, not just in the operating room. His prowess as a guitarist made him legendary in other circles outside of medicine where he was a part of a band that toured the Caribbean. What we revered him for the most was his willingness to pass on his knowledge to the next generation.
Lived to teach
Prof lived to teach. Anything he knew he would pass on to any willing ear with a passion that only resides in a few. He loved his art, and his genius in anatomy made him a legendary teacher. UWI medical school graduates would be assumed to be above average in anatomy wherever they went as a result of the anatomy programme he headed.
Prof used to joke that he had forgotten more anatomy than he remembered but knew far more relevant anatomy now than before. That he knew the back of his hand more than anyone else was a fact. When he went to Edinburgh for exams in 1972, he left an impression that lasted decades. Never before or since did examiners leave their assigned posts in an oral exam to go and participate in the examination of a candidate who could not get a question wrong. When he was through with them hours later, one examiner asked if he would consider himself an outstanding student at The University of the West Indies. He slyly replied that he was a mere average student. He was asked to dissect specimens of cadavers that adorn the anatomy laboratory of the prestigious centre of learning. A friend of mine on his trip to Edinburgh a few years ago was asked if he knew Cyril Fletcher and if he was still teaching anatomy. The conversation quickly segued to his knowledge of anatomy.
When a young Usain Bolt had a hamstring injury, Prof was able to diagnose exactly which muscle was injured and where on the muscle belly was torn. Normally, this would require an MRI scan (that later confirmed his diagnosis). But his genius did not end there. He would often point out mistakes in our anatomy texts and show us the real deal on the cadavers.
When I attempted to be the first graduate from the general surgery programme in The Bahamas, the question raised by the faculty was that The Bahamas had no anatomy lab and it would be near impossible to learn without one. The trade-off was that I would need to spend some time at Mona before the exams. Time off from work only afforded half the recommended time in the Mona labs. I sought out Prof Fletcher and explained my predicament. He allowed me to teach his tutorial group and dissect his specimens during the lead-up to the exams. Lunchtimes and evenings were spent talking anatomy. By the time the exams were done, I had cemented myself as an anatomist. But that experience taught me something valuable about success. The awesome feats of some we consider successful are not entirely of their own talent and grit. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I credit my limited success with the fact that I have been fortunate to have the shoulders of such giants as Cyril Fletcher on which to stand. There are many who share my sentiments.
A giant died last week. And with him an era of prestige in Caribbean academia that may never be replicated. We lost a man who was a mentor to generations of doctors and who will be remembered for his humility and kindness. He was a father to us all. And now Prof gives up his guitar to strum a harp with the angels above. Sleep in peace, Mr Fletcher.
Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to [email protected] and [email protected].