Lives of the fellows

Harold Wykeham Balme

b.5 November 1918 d.24 June 1988
MB BChir Cantab(1943) MA(1947) MRCP(1947) MD(1948) FRCP(1959)

By the death of Wykeham Balme medicine lost one of its most colourful characters who can never be replaced. He was born in 1918 in northern China, the second son of a medical missionary, Harold Balme MD FRCS, who wrote a book on the relief of pain and subsequently settled as a general practitioner in Henley on Thames. Wykeham was educated at Windlesham House and Marlborough College, and then went on to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied medicine. Whilst up at university he played the French horn in the Cambridge Orchestra.

After graduation he became house physician to the medical unit at Bart’s, at the Sector Hospital at Hill End, St Albans. A year later he joined the RAMC, serving in France and Germany. After demobilization and return to civilian life, he obtained his membership of the College in 1947 and was appointed medical registrar to Leslie Cole [Munk's Roll, Vol. VII. p. 109] at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, in the same year. He returned to Bart’s a year later where he remained for the next six years, first under Eric Scowen, later Sir Eric, and then under Ronald Christie (q.v.) in the medical professorial unit.

He was appointed consultant physician to Whipps Cross Hospital in 1954 and to St Bartholomew’s Hospital two years later. In 1959 he was elected to the Fellowship of the College. He wrote several papers on general medicine during his registrar days, being particularly interested in the genetics of diabetes. Later he wrote on more general topics such as ‘Advice to a house physician’ and ‘Rheumatoid arthritis from the patient’s point of view.’

He married his wife Joan Lund in 1940, while still an undergraduate. She was a teacher and the daughter of a missionary. They had five children; three boys and two girls. The eldest son, Nicholas, died tragically at the age of 18, and it seemed to many of his friends that Wykeham never fully recovered from his death. He was a great family man and very hospitable at his lovely home in Loughton. Although he did not holiday abroad, he visited American centres about which he gave a somewhat acidulous account. He later went to Lamborene, Albert Schweitzer’s hospital. After his appointment at Bart’s as a general physician, he realized that he should have a sub-specialty and chose rheumatology. He became the hospital’s first consultant in the subject in the 1960s. He visited several rheumatology centres and, although he did not produce any major original contribution on the subject, he founded a school of rheumatology at Bart’s from which emanated many consultants in rheumatology, including Paul Dieppe of Bristol Royal Infirmary, Ted Huskinson and David Doyle at Bart’s, Tom Corverman at Bath, and P A Bacon at Birmingham; thus providing an excellent opportunity for young men to develop the specialty. He also took over rheumatology at Whipps Cross Hospital, in the absence of the consultant in physical medicine, being followed by David Doyle.

Wykeham Balme was one of the founders of the medical education centre at Whipps Cross and became its second tutor. He also founded the North East Metropolitan Physicians Club, which still meets twice a year at hospitals in the region. He was sub-dean at Bart’s and president of the rugby club; his name has been perpetuated there in a room in the new Robin Brooke Centre and this must have been a source of satisfaction to him.

He retired early, at the age of 62, after having staphylococcal septicaemia. Although he was itching to retire, immediately he did so he started doing hospital locums as consultant physician; first at Hackney Hospital, commuting from Muker in North Yorkshire for four days each week, and then at other hospitals in England - including the Isle of Wight and Darlington.

Wykeham was full of repartee and wise sayings: ‘Taken on a new lease of wife’, ‘Its sex, God bless it’, ‘If I miss a committee meeting at Bart’s I find I have lost my one bed, but if I miss one at Whipps Cross I find they have given me an extra ward to look after.’ He was outspoken and perhaps offended the ultrasensitive, but to his friends he was a true delight, and he looked after his colleagues and their relatives with devotion. He was a very able physician and quick to assess the genuine case. At times he seemed to have little sympathy with neurotics and he had no time for malingerers.

He had several interesting hobbies, but being a somewhat secret person these often only became apparent to his friends accidently. He was an excellent photographer and concentrated particularly on flowering plants and birds; he had a wonderful collections of slides of English wild flowers, which he hoped to publish. He also had a lifelong interest in music; he played the piano well but preferred to do so in private. After retirement he joined the Muker silver band, playing the trombone, and indeed they were rehearsing to perform at the Durham Festival at the moment when he died. He was a keen gardener, and brewed his own wine. He was one of the few physicians to own a pub, the Farmers Arms at Muker, which was managed by his brother-in-law. This pub is on the Pennine Way and serves lunches to hikers and other wayfarers. He had a lovely house on a hilltop overlooking the village, known as Kisdon House. And during his days as a registrar he was the proud possessor of two ancient Rolls Royce cars.

Wykeham Balme will long be remembered for his bushy eyebrows, quick responses, wit and somewhat earthy humour, and for his great skill as a diagnostician and a deflator of pomposity. He was conservative in his views, especially regarding medical treatment, being sceptical of the value and potential hazards of some modern drugs. It is somewhat ironic that he had suffered from angina pectoris intermittently for two years prior to his death and had never sought the advice of a cardiologist.

KWG Heathfield

[Lancet, 1989,1,56]

(Volume VIII, page 16)

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