Lives of the fellows

Walter Elliot Elliot

b.19 September 1888 d.8 January 1958
MC(1917) PC(1932) CH(1952) BSc Glasg(1910) MB ChB Glasg(1913) DSc Glasg(1923) Hon LLD Aberd(1929) Hon DSc S Afr(1929) Hon LLD Leeds(1935) Hon LLD Glasg(1937) Hon LLD Edin(1938) Hon LLD Manch(1940) Hon LLD St And(1951) FRSE(1924) FRS(1935) *FRCP(1940)

The Right Hon. Walter Elliot Elliot was born in 1888, the son of William Elliot, of Muirglen, Lanark, and Ellen Elizabeth, daughter of Mrs Shiels, of Glasgow. He was educated at Glasgow Academy and went on to Glasgow University, where he had a brilliant career. O. H. Mavor (better known as James Bridie, the playwright), James Maxton and Thomas Johnston were among his fellow-students. After a resident post in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Elliot went to France as medical officer to the Royal Scots Greys, and won the Military Cross and bar.

After demobilisation Elliot served for a short while as a part-time medical officer on the staff of a London borough, and was elected Unionist M.P. for Lanark. In 1923 he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Health for Scotland, but lost the Lanark seat at the election that year. A period of research on animal nutrition at the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen, under Dr John (later Lord) Boyd-Orr followed, and gained for him his D.Sc, in 1923 and the F.R.S.E. in 1924.

He returned to Parliament as Member for the Kelvingrove division of Glasgow from 1924 to 1945. He resumed his former ministerial office and occupied it until 1926 when the name was changed to Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. In 1931 he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the National Government and in the following year attained Cabinet rank as Minister of Agriculture.

Always interested in farming, he put British agriculture on a better footing and earned the confidence of the agricultural community. In this office he also showed his administrative ability. In 1933 he was elected lord rector of Aberdeen University and in his rectorial address he discussed planning on a scientific basis for adequate nutrition of the people. In 1935 he was made F.R.S, under the statute which permits the election of ‘persons who have rendered conspicuous services to the cause of science’.

From 1936 to 1938 he was Secretary of State for Scotland, and from 1938 to 1940 Minister of Health, being the second Minister in that office with a medical qualification, Christopher Addison, M.D., F.R.C.S., being the first.

At the Ministry of Health Walter Elliot’s many excellent qualities were highly appreciated, for he came to it fully versed in the professional and medical considerations of its policy. At that time the shadow of the Second World War loomed nearer, and the Ministry’s plans for the Emergency Medical Service and the evacuation scheme were already prepared. Elliot quickly grasped the situation and threw himself into the work with characteristic energy and enthusiasm.

At conferences he spoke fluently and dealt quickly and ably with points raised, for he relied on his permanent officials for advice and never ignored wise criticism. Under his stimulating influence the lessons of the science of nutrition were welded into the Government’s plans for rationing.

In June 1939 he sent his chief medical officer on a confidential mission to Canada and the United States to inform the chief medical officers and officials of these countries of the Ministry’s preparations for maintaining the national health and hospitals in the event of war. These conversations proved most helpful when the Canadians and later the Americans entered the war.

In 1939 Elliot addressed the British Medical Association on the organisation of medical services and delivered the presidential address to the Southern Medical Society at Glasgow on the same subject. He ceased to be Minister of Health in May 1940 at a time when the Ministry’s preparations on health and hospital provision were proving their value. He bore this disappointment with equanimity, rejoined the Army and was promoted to colonel.

He served as public relations officer at the War Office, was chairman of the British Parliamentary Committee to foster relations with the United States, and devoted himself to other forms of public service for the remainder of the war. After its termination he was regarded as an elder statesman and served on many committees and commissions of importance, including the Commission of Enquiry into Higher Education in West Africa.

In 1946 he showed his continued interest in health and medicine by becoming president of the Royal Institute of Public Health and Hygiene. From 1947 to 1950 he was lord rector of Glasgow University. In 1956 and 1957 he was Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a most popular appointment in both church and lay circles. He also achieved success as a broadcaster by his erudition, wit and humour.

In 1945 he had lost the Kelvingrove seat by 88 votes, but he returned to the House of Commons the following year as Member for the Scottish Universities until the abolition of the University seats. He was then elected the Member for Kelvingrove and at the General Election of 1955 held the seat with a much increased majority.

As well as being a brilliant conversationalist and orator Walter Elliot had a gifted pen; his reforming and imaginative mind is revealed in his writings and speeches, notably in his book, Toryism and the twentieth century (1927). He was twice married. His first wife, Helen, daughter of Lt-Col. D. L. Hamilton, R.A.M.C., whom he married in 1919, was tragically killed in a climbing accident while they were on their honeymoon in Skye. Elliot, who also fell, was seriously injured.

In 1934 he married Katherine, second daughter of Sir Charles Tennant. Her talents for social and political work were recognised by her appointment as a Dame of the British Empire and by her creation as a life peeress (Baroness Elliot of Harwood) in 1958.

Walter Elliot died suddenly from a heart attack at his home, Harwood, in Roxburghshire.

Richard R Trail

* He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."

[Brit.med.J., 1958, 1, 163-4 (p); Lancet, 1958, 1, 167-8 (p); Med. Wld (Lond.), 1953, 80, 76-80; Times, 9 (p), 11, 13,14,17,18, 20 Jan. 1958; C. Coote. A Companion of honour: the story of Walter Elliot. London, 1965 (p). Photo.]

(Volume V, page 117)

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