Dr Corinne Rees, a community paediatrician whose medical advisory service bridged the gap between paediatrics and psychology

Dr Gareth Rees looks back at the life of his wife, Dr Corinne Rees, who died last December, and looks forward to honouring her memory and that of her parents, who were also paediatricians, at the College’s Annual Conference.
Dr Corinne Rees
Dr Corinne Rees

Corinne was a community paediatrician in Bristol, specialising in adoption and foster care or, as she put it, ‘recovery from neglect and abuse’. She became a part-time associate specialist in 1991. She relished not having a consultant’s administrative responsibilities and being able to balance her roles as mother and doctor. She believed the former enhanced the latter. She had a special gift for engaging with children, in which she was well served by her imagination and sense of fun and humour. 

Corinne grew up in Sheffield within a medical family. Both her parents were paediatricians and all three children became doctors. Her father, Ronald Illingworth, was the first Professor of Child Health in the city, a prolific author, and awarded the James Spence Medal. Her mother, Cynthia, was the first paediatric Accident and Emergency Consultant in the UK. Corinne became a Queen’s Guide and was awarded an exhibition to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she completed her pre-clinical training. Her clinical training was in Bristol, where she graduated with several prizes and distinctions, including the gold medal for her year. She had many interests outside medicine but music was especially important: she sang in choirs throughout much of her life and played the flute, piano and cello. She leaves her husband, two children and two grandchildren. An Annual College Conference ‘Illingworth-Rees Lecture’ has now been established in memory of Corinne and her parents. She was very modest and would have chuckled.

Corinne took advantage of her ‘extraordinary opportunity’ to develop a medical advisory service for children involved in adoption, and their adoptive families, which was highly regarded locally and beyond. It embraced comprehensive detailed assessment of the children (behavioural, developmental, emotional, genetic, medical and social), and of prospective adopters; preparation and training of the latter; and ongoing holistic care, advice and support. 

Responsibility for the service over decades gave Corinne the opportunity to develop her understanding of emotional development; the importance of children’s parental attachments; and the nature and implications of emotional abuse, including that at the core of physical and sexual harm. Successful placement in loving homes of children and young people needing substitute care, often victims of emotional and physical neglect and abuse, not only has immense lifelong consequences for their physical and mental health: Corinne believed the benefits for society are commensurate. Long term post-adoption care and support is often crucial to success. Corinne was convinced that this is best provided by the team who oversaw the placement and who know the child, the family and the background. Continuity and being immediately available on demand were most important to her. Her commitment to the children was selfless. 

Corinne was awarded Honorary Fellowship of the College, in recognition of the service she established, her teaching and publications. Several of the latter aimed to bridge the gap between paediatric and psychology services and were concerned with childhood attachment and related issues such as emotional wellbeing and abuse; helping recovery from neglect and abuse; and the potential long-term physical, psychological and social consequences of disordered relationships and trauma in the early years. She published also on the need for measures to prevent iatrogenic psychological harm to be as robust as those for physical harm; the role of the autonomic nervous system in childhood illnesses and their manifestations; and the importance of awareness of gaps in knowledge in healthcare, including recognising the existence of unknown unknowns.

Corinne attached great importance to listening and its contribution to building trust. She believed that diminishing the roles of careful history taking and clinical examination carries substantial risk. She cautioned against over-reliance on investigations, diagnostic labels and guidelines. She was mindful of the limitations of evidence based practice, targets and checklists, especially within her own area of practice, where key outcomes are often difficult to measure and may manifest only decades later.   She was concerned about increasing specialisation and declining generalism. She was always ready to challenge orthodoxy and thought safe practice should be as robust in addressing gaps in knowledge as in applying knowledge prudently. She believed that friendliness, thinking about the wider picture, pragmatism, common sense and humility are crucial to good doctoring. 

Feedback from children, adoptive parents and colleagues showed Corinne practised what she preached. Her colleagues in the health service and those she cared for or supported professionally describe her as an outstanding compassionate doctor who always put the child first, really listened and was not afraid to challenge accepted norms. Several describe her enduring impact on personal and family lives.