The inspiring life of a Cape Town GP

    By Solly Benatar and Milton Shain

    Maurice Silbert graduated in Medicine at UCT in 1954. 

    After internship at Grey’s Hospital and some locums he entered family practice and had a long and productive partnership with Sid Kiel. Mossie, or Mo was one of the doyens of family practice in Cape Town. He featured prominently in the lives and health of thousands of people and his death leaves a void for all who knew and loved him.

    His life as an outstanding doctor could be recounted as a complex series of overlapping and intersecting narratives spanning a 60-year unique era of medicine. Unprecedented advances in our knowledge of health and disease and in the diagnostic and therapeutic modalities available for application in all fields of medicine, radically changed health care. These advances posed the greatest challenges to family doctors who, in addition to caring for their patients directly, also had to be capable of engaging in thoughtful and sensitive bridging relationships with an expanding number of specialist and super-specialist colleagues. 

    Mo was well known for his astute diagnostic skills and for his warm humanistic approach to caring for patients. Prof Frank Forman, an uncle, was one of his heroes whose exemplary clinical acumen inspired and motivated him. He was also clinically and morally inspired by the examples set by the late Golda  Selzer, Bill Hoffenberg and Frances Ames. His special interests were in the doctor-patient relationship, medical and psycho-social problems in the elderly, the family doctor’s role in caring for the terminally ill, and the need to recognise the manifestations of ‘masked depression,’ on which topics he wrote thoughtful articles. He was a founding member of St Luke’s Hospice and the Cape Jewish Seniors’ Association.  

    The intertwining of his intellectual commitment to keeping up with advances in medicine and maintaining high standards, combined with long hours of work and dedication to excellent interpersonal relationships, as medicine rapidly evolved and became more sophisticated, was very demanding. His stamina to cope inspired his colleagues and students, and he sustained strong links with his patients and the community which he served so well for many decades. Mo’s interest in, and dedication to his patients included paying his final respects to them by attending their funerals.

    A characteristic feature of medical practice in Cape Town from the 1960s to the 1990s was the close interaction between doctors in the academic hospitals associated with UCT and those in private practice.  Mo was one of a cadre of about a dozen dedicated family doctors, who willing took on part-time teaching and clinical work in the UCT medical school. He was also actively involved in the promotion of General Practice as a discipline within the undergraduate curriculum and he played a significant role in developing Family Practice as a specialty, within what was then the College of Medicine of South Africa. Many UCT medical students had the pleasure and privilege of rotating through his practice where they witnessed and were inspired by care very different from what they were exposed to in the hospital environment.

    The values and qualities that he brought to bear in his work and to his life in general included, sincerity, integrity, humility, compassion, empathy, courage and fortitude, all combined with dedication to excellence and a passion for developing and understanding human relationships and their role in health and disease. He often quoted Sir William Osler saying, ‘The good physician treats the disease: the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.’ 

    If one had to define the ideal General Practitioner, it would be Dr Mossie Silbert. He cared for his patients in a legendary way. Always ready to listen; he would do unsolicited follow-ups and visits — even, I might add, to non-patients. Mo was able to speak from the experience of a patient who showed much courage and acceptance of his own illnesses. The example he set and his impact on the lives of the many patients for whom he cared, will long be remembered with respect, admiration and affection. Who can forget the 7am call to ask how one was feeling? House calls only stopped when Mossie was no longer safe at the wheel. Yet, even then, he planned to take advantage of Uber to visit his patients — this despite his declining physical prowess.

    Mo’s awards included the 1968 Louis Leipoldt Medal from the South African Medical Journal, for his work on a research project entitled ‘The Cape Morbidity Survey and its Significance in Training for General Practice’, the 1983 Hans Snyckers Memorial Medal for ‘Dedicated and Distinguished Service in Medicine in South Africa’ and a ‘Distinguished Family Practitioner Medal,’ established in 1998 within the University of Cape Town and Groote Schur Hospital Department of Medicine, for consistent long-standing commitment to family practice teaching.

    Maurice Silbert the man, was a living example of the best of Jewish values: He walked humbly with his God. He loved his family and was devoted to Marlene, Jo, Patti and Beth — to his sons-in-laws and grandchildren, and to his late brother Frank. He was proud of them all. 

    He was also an intrepid letter writer to the press and a regular correspondent to the ‘Word of Mouth’ programme on SABC on Sunday mornings.

    Never one to dwell on his own achievements, Mossie relished the success of those around him. But success was not always measured by conventional yardsticks. Success for Mossie meant living a decent life; success was helping and caring for others. His values radiated from his angelic features. Mossie taught us all. He taught us humility; he taught us honesty and he taught us to respect. Common decency – underlined by care for all – and I mean all.

    He was proud of his family and the wonderful work they did. Their efforts will continue with the younger generations. He was happy to know this. It was his job to begin the task, not to complete it.

    As a student cheerleader at UCT Mossie revealed a zest for life that never left him. He had the finest sense of humour on the Atlantic Sea Board where he lived for so many decades.

    He was a great practical joker. His antics were unsurpassable. Once, during a house call, he stood on his head next to the patient’s bed before asking her how she felt. ‘Not so well, Doctor’, she replied. ‘Everything is upside down’.

    Maurice Silbert was born on 21 October 1930 and passed away on 5 December 2018.


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