Obituary – In memory of Robert Ross Adlard Coles

Robert Ross Adlard Coles (18 December 1927 – 16 December 2017)

Ross was a founder of scientific audiology as it exists today, being instrumental in establishing the clinical role both of audiological physicians and audiological scientists and in establishing tinnitus as an important disorder worthy of research endeavour and clinical support. His greatest legacy will probably be the number of young people that he has encouraged to undergo a career in audiology, especially via the MSc in Audiology programme, whose alumni include numerous audiologists around the world now in leadership positions. His qualities as an educator and guide at a personal level are remembered in many of the sentiments that have been expressed in the days since his passing. His warmth, generosity and good humour will be lasting memories for many in the audiology community.

Ross was the son of the championship sailor Adlard Coles OBE, which explains the love of the water and sailing that Ross had throughout his life. He was a member of the university sailing team at Cambridge in 1947, 1948 and its captain in 1949. He sailed for many years but unfortunately his ability to participate in sailing was curtailed later in life by various injuries.

He joined the Royal Navy Medical Service (now Institute of Naval Medicine) in 1953, after completing his medical training at Clare College Cambridge and St Mary’s Hospital London. His naval career was mainly at the Royal Navy Medical Service at Alverstoke near Gosport, although he served at Suez in 1956 and also served on HM Royal Yacht Britannia in 1959-1960, where he was sailing master of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s racing yacht Bluebottle. Although qualified in ear surgery, his interests focused on auditory research and he would characterise himself as an audiological physician. He was particularly engaged in his early research on the damaging effects of noise on the ear, particularly military exposures from gunfire and ship engine room noise.

In the early 1960s, Ross began an attachment from the Royal Navy Medical Service to work at the Medical Research Council’s Wernher Institute on Deafness at King’s College Hospital, London. He mainly carried out audiometric surveys of noise-exposed personnel, initially those on aircraft carrier flight decks and later of submarine engine crews and Royal Marine recruits using the new military self-loading rifle. One of his collaborators at the Wernher Institute was Chris Rice; that collaboration continued when Chris left to join the newly-formed Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) at the University of Southampton. Ross and Chris formed the Audiology and Human Factors Group (later Human Sciences Group) at ISVR in 1965, with the two of them as joint chairs. Ross was seconded part-time to ISVR in 1965 until he retired from the Royal Navy in 1970 and joined ISVR as a full-time academic.

During his secondment to ISVR, his research interests changed gradually from the effects of noise exposure towards the increasingly scientific subject of diagnostic audiology, setting up the Wessex Audiology Clinic at ISVR. That changing interest was reflected in his becoming a founder member of the British Society of Audiology in 1967. At the time, site-of-lesion testing in audiology was its most challenging area, in an era where electric response audiometry was in its infancy and before the widespread availability of imaging techniques such as high-resolution CT scans and MRI. He was successful in gaining a large rolling programme grant from the Medical Research Council to develop new audiological techniques, including tympanometry and acoustic reflex testing, cortical and brainstem electric response audiometry. Underpinned by the developing scientific discipline and research base in audiology at ISVR and elsewhere, he was successful in persuading the Department of Health to introduce audiological scientists into the forthcoming Hospital Scientific Service of the NHS, which in turn led to the establishment of the MSc in Audiology programme at the University of Southampton in 1972. Also Ross instigated a number of short courses in audiology and vestibular function at the university, which attracted widespread national and international attendance.

The next phase of his career echoed the increasing importance being placed on hearing disorders, when the Medical Research Council established its Institute of Hearing Research (IHR) in Nottingham with Professor Mark Haggard as Director, having outstations in Glasgow, Nottingham, Cardiff and Southampton. Ross was appointed as Deputy Director based in Nottingham. His specialism changed again as he became increasingly interested in tinnitus, which had received too little attention previously. His work at IHR was initially split between clinical aspects of the National Study of Hearing and his research on tinnitus, supported by his development of the specialist Nottingham Tinnitus Clinic, one of only three such clinics in the UK. He held an honorary position as a Consultant with the NHS during his time at IHR. As work on the National Study of Hearing wound down in the latter part of the 1980s, he focused mainly on tinnitus research and clinical practice. While at Nottingham, he inaugurated the Nottingham Tinnitus Course, which has since become the European Tinnitus Course and continues to attract participants from all over the world. He retired from the IHR and the NHS in 1992, becoming Chair of the British Society of Audiology in early retirement between 1994 and 1996, also generously donating the medallion worn by all future BSA Chairs.

Throughout his career at ISVR and IHR, Ross maintained a side interest in medicolegal audiology and particularly personal injury claims for noise-induced hearing loss. He was a medical expert in the ground-breaking trials that established the principle that noise-induced hearing loss qualified for compensation in English law. In one trial he was in the witness box for a total of 6 weeks. He provided witness testimony as a medical expert in many thousands of cases both during his working career and after retirement until the last few years when he gradually withdrew from such work. It is testament to his expertise that he has co-authored two publications that are so well known by judges and lawyers that they are simply referred to by pet names: the Black Book and the CLB guidelines.

These were not his only published works: Ross published widely in medical and scientific journals with a total of almost 200 publications between 1957 and 2016.

Ross has made outstanding contributions in so many ways. His patients will attest to the caring interest that he has shown, especially those with debilitating tinnitus. His research prowess is reflected by his world-wide reputation. He was a founder of scientific audiology in the UK, a patient teacher and mentor for many students and researchers in audiology. Above all, he was a gentle giant of a man who generously shared his knowledge, experience, time and good humour with us all.

Our deepest sympathy to his wife Kathy and his family.