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Olbrich, Oscar (1901–1957), gerontologist and geriatrician, was born in Prague of Hungarian Jewish descent on 2 February 1901, the son of Francis Ochs, a general merchant. He graduated in Vienna, before gaining his MD in 1926, and worked for a year with Professor Karel Wenckebach and Dr Schnitzler in Vienna. From 1928 to 1932 he assisted in the medical clinics of Professor Rudolf von Jaksch and Dr Wagner in Prague, gaining his MD degree (Prague) in 1931, and then worked for a year in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

Nazi oppression caused Olbrich to flee from central Europe but he left his departure for Edinburgh rather late, arriving only five days before the outbreak of the Second World War. After studying at Edinburgh University, he requalified in 1941 by passing the Scottish triple examination and the following year he passed both the London conjoint and the MRCP (Edinburgh) examinations. He held posts at Edenhall Hospital, the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he worked with Stanley Davidson and was clinical tutor, and at the department of chemical pathology of Edinburgh University, where his interest in renal function was aroused. A period in general practice followed but this failed to provide satisfaction and he returned to hospital medicine as physician in charge of Queensberry House Hospital, Edinburgh, a unit for the aged sick. Here, aided by a grant from the Medical Research Council, he investigated renal function and blood changes in elderly patients. In 1946 he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the following year his research work was rewarded with an Edinburgh PhD. His own first marriage to Gertrud Snablova (née Tchatko) having ended in divorce, on 3 April 1948 he married Dorothy Beatrice Aaronson (1915–2005), daughter of George Frederick Lewer, tyre merchant, and former wife of the poet Lazarus Aaronson. They had a son and a daughter.

The work on which Olbrich's reputation became established began with his appointment in 1950 as physician in charge of the 600-bed geriatric unit at Sunderland General Hospital. The building was an old poor law institution where inpatients stayed an average of six years. His first task was to modernize the clinical management of the elderly. His enthusiastic and dynamic approach quickly established the unit as a leading geriatric centre, which provided immediate patient admission or full medical investigations within a week of request. Admissions increased to 3000 a year, an outpatient department was opened, and a local ‘meals on wheels’ service established. Many of his registrars and senior registrars later became leading lights in geriatric medicine.

Olbrich's second aim was to establish a gerontological research unit. Lack of resources hampered him but ultimately the Newcastle regional hospital board provided some funding which the Nuffield Foundation supplemented. An international reputation for high quality research quickly developed. He published twenty-three papers relating to water and electrolyte metabolism and ageing changes in the blood, kidneys, heart, and prostate. He presented papers at all the meetings of the International Association of Gerontology, where his extensive knowledge of European languages made him a considerable asset. The association elected him as honorary secretary of the clinical gerontological research committee and asked him to organize an international meeting at Sunderland for 1958.

Olbrich, sometimes known as Ossie, was short, round faced, usually smiling, full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, with a glorious sense of humour and a charming manner. He was a forceful, persuasive character, but he was never too busy to give time to those wished to see him. He read avidly (his room was always full of books and journals) and was an outstanding and gifted teacher. Many junior doctors believed that they owed their success in the MRCP examination and their future careers to the support he gave them. However, he could be an autocrat and a tyrant in the mould of the continental professor. He was devoted to his consultant colleague, Lyn Woodford-Williams, but abused her unmercifully and in public. He always called her ‘Villiams’, never by her Christian name. ‘Villiams, you fool’, spoken in a thick accent, was heard more than once in the wards. Nevertheless, when he was ill, he only allowed her to attend him.

Olbrich was an energetic supporter of the Medical Society for the Care of the Elderly and of the British Society for Research on Ageing, a keen photographer, a Rotarian, and a freemason. He appeared to live on chocolate Swiss rolls but also enjoyed good living. His colleagues enjoyed going out to dinner with him, preferably to a Hungarian restaurant, where he would enthuse about the beauties of his native land and its poetry. He died of a coronary thrombosis at his home, 10 Seaburn Terrace, Sunderland, on 22 August 1957. His second wife and their two children survived him.

Michael John Denham


The Times (24 Aug 1957) · The Lancet (7 Sept 1957), 496 · Gerontologia, 1/5 (1957), 314 · BMJ (14 Sept 1957), 648; (21 Sept 1957), 715–6; (28 Sept 1957), 770–1 · petition for the fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 19 April 1945, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh · m. cert. · d. cert.


photograph, repro. in ‘Oscar Olbrich’, Gerontologia · photograph, repro. in Lancet

Wealth at death  

£11,688 17s. 9d.: probate, 10 Dec 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales