Lives of the fellows

James Gordon Danson

b.1 March 1885 d.18 June 1969
MB BCh Aberdeen(1908) MD(1922) MRCP(1926) FRCP(1938)

James Gordon Danson was born in Aberdeen, the fifth son of James Myers Danson, DD, late Dean of Aberdeen. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and entered Aberdeen University in 1903, qualifying MB BCh in March 1908. Immediately after qualification he became house physician to David Findley, FRCP, who was Professor of Medicine at that time, and whose influence was to turn the newly qualified James Danson towards medicine for life. Further appointments in surgery and gynaecology followed before he decided to come south. The year 1909 was spent as house physician at the Royal Chest Hospital, City Road, and the year 1910 as Senior Medical Officer at the County Asylum, Brentwood, Essex.

In October 1910 he joined the Royal Navy in which he was destined to serve for the next 36 years. During 1918 he was stationed at RN Hospital, Chatham, where he had experience of the pandemic of influenza, and the heliotrope cyanosis, staphylococcal and streptococcal pneumonias which characterized that epidemic, before being appointed to RN College, Dartmouth.

Owing to war service Danson had been away from academic medicine for a decade and much of the next year (1921) was spent at the National Hospital Queen’s Square, the Heart Hospital, and later at Edinburgh. He passed his MD in 1922 with Commendation, and after three years in RN Hospital, Malta, the MRCP London in 1926. By this time it was apparent that he was afflicted with otosclerosis, and faced with the prospect of ultimate total deafness. There was therefore a sense of urgency in his activities and a determination to acquire the necessary status in the profession before he was cut off from the world around him. At the final MRCP oral examination the President of the College addressed him:

‘Tell me, Commander Danson, you are now over 40 years of age and very few medical officers of the Navy present themselves for this examination; why is it that you came forward at your time of life?’ ‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘I am faced with the prospect of total deafness and I am determined to go down with all flags flying’. He passed.

After a course in laboratory work at the Westminster, he was appointed medical specialist to RN Hospital, Plymouth, but his clinical days were drawing to a close.

In 1935 he was married in Carlisle Cathedral to the daughter of the Bishop of Carlisle. The marriage was a very happy one but there were no children.

As Surgeon-Captain in charge of the Medical Division of Chatham Hospital, in 1936, history was to repeat itself when an outbreak of influenza overwhelmed the facilities of the hospital. The Medical Specialist (Surgeon-Commander Pristow, MD, MRCP) died, and the brunt of the very massive clinical work fell on the shoulders of J.G. Danson. His former experience with the pandemic of 1918 stood him in good stead.

In 1938 he was appointed Professor of Medicine at RN Hospital, Chatham, duties which involved directing research and teaching newly joined officers, more especially in tropical medicine. It is no reflection on the other occupants of the Chair to say that the Navy never had a better one. Danson was a master of English, both written and spoken, with a wonderful gift for picking out the basic and important facts and stating them in a concise and clear fashion, and many a young doctor remained permanently grateful to him for his exact instructions and elaborate notes. He was elected FRCP in 1938.

During the second world war Danson served at the RN Auxiliary Hospital at Barrow Gurney and at RN Hospital, Plymouth, during the height of the ‘blitz’.

He retired from the Royal Navy in 1947 and was appointed to the Pensions Appeals Tribunal at Liverpool, but failing eyesight and increasing deafness caused him to retire. He went to live in Bath, where he died.

J.G. Danson was an extraordinary character. He was reared in a Scottish manse where a passion for learning based on the classics, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, was the order of the day. He appeared as someone resurrected from the eighteenth century; a reincarnation of Dr Johnson with all the learning and wit that that implies. In addition to Latin and Greek, he read widely in English, French and German, and could quote at length in any of these languages.

Far from suffering fools gladly, he did not suffer them at all; he was always happy to instruct and lead, but sloppy or careless work invoked a flood of invective which the recipient was likely to remember for many a year. At the same time, he was capable of very firm and lasting friendship, and no one was more ready to encourage and sustain a young person of promise.

He was a man of absolute integrity based on upbringing and firm Christian beliefs; he remained a regular communicant until his death, and constantly maintained that he was unafraid to show his faith to anyone.

In 1946 when Danson was faced with the prospect of being shut off from the world of light as well as sound, with astounding determination he set himself to learn Braille at which he became quite fluent within the space of two years. A second operation for cataract in 1952 was successful and allowed him, once again, access to his beloved books. Heart failure and angina pectoris followed but he learned to live with these until, early in 1969, he developed carcinoma of the larynx from which he ultimately died.

MR Gunn

[Brit.med.J., 3, 119 Times 16 June 1969]

(Volume VI, page 138)

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