At 91, Dr Lawrence Bannister talks about his life as a doctor, author and artist. (Pictures by Gercine Carter.)
ESCAPING FROM THE HEAT of the afternoon sun, Lawrence “Lance” Bannister heads for his sprawling garden and finding a shady spot, reclines on a freshly-painted bench, and literally becomes the master of all he is surveying.
Before him lies a vista of art and colour – large, magnificent sculptures positioned everywhere in the fun garden he created on his one-acre property.
There are carousels for the delight of children, metal horses standing majestically; a gigantic, bright yellow butterfly whose wings no longer flap, an impressive sunflower hard in texture, delicate in design – all created from the discarded vehicle parts which Bannister has been transforming into iron art and sculpture for decades.
Through this hobby, the 91-year-old doctor introduced Barbadians to the concept of recycling.
Bannister returned to Barbados in the 1950s from Jamaica, where he had studied and done his medical internship, to find there was a lot of discarded metal garbage strewn around the island.
Armed with his knowledge of anatomy he decided to collect the old car parts and other pieces of metal to start a hobby, drawing on the creative talent he is sure he inherited from his father.
Dr Lawrence Bannister pausing to admire this masterpiece of a dinosaur he created in his Iron Garden.
One of his sculptures was once on show at the regional arts festival CARIFESTA in Trinidad; some pieces went on display at The Village of Hope set up by the late Dr Colin Hudson during the United Nations Climate Conference on Small Island Developing States in 1994. His NIFCA gold award-winning horses – now showing signs of exposure to the elements in his Iron Garden – were selected for the festival’s exhibition.
Hundreds of visitors, many of them schoolchildren, have passed through the Iron Garden at Perry Gap, Roebuck Street. Looking at some sculptures, you realise they have already seen their better days and are showing signs of rusting, while others remain functional and in good condition. Nonetheless, there is no letting up for Bannister, who is always dreaming up a design for his next piece.
Metal art is not all that occupies his time, though. Over the last ten years he has been reaping success with his writing, taking the Prime Minister’s Award for Talking Tree, a genealogical and autobiographical exposé of his extended Jordan family.
Moonlight Songs Of Barbados is his collection of children’s songs and rhymes from the 1920s, while guests at social gatherings have been entertained with his poetry readings.
Writing allows him to give expression to his training in the classics at Codrington College, so typical of Harrisonians of his day. He studied Latin and Greek but chose to fulfil the wishes of his planter father, who was also a bookkeeper, and became a doctor.
Like the children who take a ride in his Iron Garden, Dr Lawrence Bannister takes a ride on one of his carousels.
“Before I could speak, my father said, ‘My son is going to be a doctor’ and without qualification in the sciences so necessary for modern aspirants to the medical profession, Bannister made it to the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies and successfully completed medical studies.
“Medicine made me an artist,” exclaimed the silver-haired doctor, who still has an agile step and maintains a youthful style of dress.
“It gave me the knowledge of anatomy and physiology, it gave me money and it gave me time. If I had not studied medicine, I could not have done this work,” he added, running his hand over one of his prized sculptures.
He regales the listener with stories about his early days as a doctor in Barbados, where he had a “very exciting” medical practice. According to him, those were the days when doctors and priests were held in high esteem in the community, with the doctor living in a house near to the church and the priest living near the almshouse (now called the district hospital).
Laughing all the way, Bannister told this story: “I remember there was a thing called the Asian flu and everybody had it. I went to this house in St Andrew and there was this man and his wife and three children all sick with it and all of them were sleeping in the same bed, so they were bound to catch it. But I travelled with my medicine – a large five-gallon bottle of ‘Mr Aspirin’ – one diagnosis, one medicine.”
He poured some of the mixture into the patients’ “pint ’n’ half bottles” and swears his simple medication did the trick.
For him, “The main thing for a GP was to go.”
Working as casualty officer at the Barbados General Hospital on Jemmotts Lane in 1957, he and his family lived on the floor above The Casualty, close enough to be readily available to patients who appeared in The Casualty with myriad emergencies, like the patient who turned up on Christmas Eve night with a cut on the head. It took 55 stitches.
Bannister recalls that the more difficult procedures were left to the regular surgeons, Sir Jack Leacock, Dr George Emtage and Dr Hal Massiah, as well as visiting surgeons Dr Lionel Stuart and Sir Arnot Cato, all of whom are now deceased.
Back then venereal diseases were common and, as a family practitioner, he like other doctors saw and treated many cases. Now he is happy “that’s all gone”.
Though medicine today is “a different game”, he is still concerned about the high incidence of chronic non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure and problems of obesity and overweight.
There was a time when he served as medical officer for the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Barbados Fire Service, and Her Majesty’s Prisons, all the while carrying on his private family practice at his Perry Gap home.
He was the doctor who certified the death of convicted murderers in Barbados after they were hanged at Glendairy Prisons, and was present for the last such execution recorded here. It was part of his job as prison doctor, and he tells how he managed to distance himself emotionally.
“I had to see them alive before they were carried out and I had to certify they were dead afterwards,” Bannister said, as he went on to confess that the emotion set aside then, does occasionally surface with fleeting memories of the experience.
He still practises medicine on a limited scale, assisting with the admission of patients at the Psychiatric Hospital and issuing food handling certificates.
He was recognised for his “outstanding contribution to medicine, Barbadian literature and art” with the Gold Crown Of Merit in the 2014 National Independence Honours.
A towering iron sunflower dwarfs Dr Lawrence Bannister standing beside it.