Lives of the fellows

Walter Morley (Sir) Fletcher

b.21 July 1873 d.7 June 1933
KBE(1918) CB BA Cantab(1894) MB(1900) MA MD ScD Hon DSc Oxon Leeds Hon LLD Edin Glasg Birm Penn FRS(1915) FRCP(1918)

Walter Morley Fletcher was born at Liverpool, the sixth son of Alfred Evans Fletcher, an inspector of alkali works under the Local Government Board, and his wife Sarah, daughter of Richard Morley of Leeds. From University College School he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1891. A brilliant academic career ensued. Gaining a double first in natural sciences — he graduated in 1894 — he was elected Coutts Trotter student in 1896 and a fellow of his College in 1897 and won the Walsingham medal in 1897. He completed his medical training at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital as an open scholar, and proceeded to his M.B. degree in 1900. He then returned to Cambridge as senior demonstrator in physiology and in 1904 was made a tutor at Trinity. His researches on the biochemistry of muscular contraction in the next decade earned him election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1915.

In 1914, however, Fletcher abandoned academic life to accept the post of secretary to the Medical Research Committee, later the Medical Research Council. To him was largely due the important contribution made by the M.R.C. to the Services during the Great War. He himself sat on the Army Pathological Committee, the R.A.F. Medical Advisory Committee and, after the armistice, the Pensions Disability Committee. For his services he was created K.B.E. in 1918. Thereafter, the M.R.C., functioning under the Privy Council, gained rapidly in influence and reputation not only throughout England but throughout the Empire, thanks again mainly to Fletcher’s initiative and administrative ability. Its encouragement of work on vitamins, viruses and insulin may be mentioned as examples of its activities. Fletcher himself was a member of the Royal Commission which inquired into the constitutions of Oxford and Cambridge (1919-22), as well as medical assessor of the University Grants Committee and a governor of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1928 he visited India as chairman of a Government committee for the organisation of medical research.

Fletcher’s personality, expressed through his work as secretary of the M.R.C, made an unusually vivid impression on his contemporaries. Reducing "red tape" to a minimum, he appeared to individual research workers, not the distant official approachable only through the exchange of formal correspondence, but an ever helpful, ever present, comrade whose quick retentive mind could at once understand both their difficulties and their aims. In Fletcher, a rare blend of administrative skill and scientific foresight enabled missionary fervour for the cause of medical research to achieve the best possible results. This same fervour was responsible, too, for the less attractive aspects of his character—ruthlessness towards opponents and the bestowal of unsought advice on associates. But, blessed with a fine physique, an athletics Blue, devoted to deerstalking and all country sports, he had a wide circle of friends attracted by his charm, his intellect and his knowledge. Fletcher married Mary Frances, daughter of Charles James Cropper of Kendal, by whom he had a daughter and a son, C. M. Fletcher, F.R.C.P. He was a brother of Herbert Morley Fletcher, F.R.C.P. He died in London.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1933; B.M.J., 1933; Times, 8, 9 June 1933; Nature, 1 July 1933; D.N.B., 1931-40, 284; Al.Cantab., ii, 522]

(Volume IV, page 558)

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