Lives of the fellows

Thomas Cecil Highton

b.3 October 1917 d.26 April 1976
MB ChB Liverp(1942) MRCP(1945) MRACP(1961) FRACP(1966) FRCP(1970)

Tom Highton was associate professor of rheumatology at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He was born at Johannesburg, South Africa, the son of Thomas Highton, who was employed by the South African railways, and his wife, Caroline, daughter of Johannes Karl Langman, an hotel owner. When he was nine years old he came to England with his parents, where he attended the King George V School at Southport. He proved to be a student of considerable promise, but the early death of his father led to hard times for the family, and it was necessary for him to obtain scholarships to complete his education. These he attained, and he entered Liverpool University as a medical student in 1936, graduating in 1942. He distinguished himself as a student, gaining distinction in pharmacology and therapeutics, the medal in forensic medicine, and the Owen T Williams prize for the highest aggregate marks in medicine, surgery and obstetrics.

Owing to the outbreak of the second world war, Tom Highton held various house posts while still an undergraduate, at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary. This was invaluable experience and, after graduation, he was appointed house physician at the Walton Infirmary, where he was responsible for acute medical wards with some 129 beds. In 1943 he joined the Royal Navy as surgeon lieutenant and served in combined operations on a troop carrier in the Mediterranean and, later, with the Home Fleet. While on active service he took his MRCP, and the close of the war found him as a physician at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar.

On demobilization he was appointed senior medical registrar at the West London Hospital. It was here that he began his long and rewarding career in rheumatology. He came under the influence of Will Copeman and, subsequently, of Eric Bywaters, obtaining a Nuffield fellowship in chronic rheumatic diseases. He was Saltwell Scholar in 1949. This enabled him to continue his training in rheumatology at the West London and Hammersmith Hospitals, and it was at this time that he became friendly with two other pioneers of New Zealand rheumatology, Chris Gresson and Moore Tweed. These were friendships which were to last his life time, and stimulated his interest in their country.

In 1951 he accepted an appointment as research medical officer at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Rotorua, NZ, a post which was both challenging and frustrating. Although there was ample scope for his talents as a physician, rheumatology was not then recognized as a valid medical specialty, and he had to be very persistent to have his skills accepted. He was the first to realise that gout was a common complaint among the Maoris, and he pioneered the use of intra-articular corticosteriods in New Zealand. Research, however, was limited, for there was barely enough time and money for essential patient care. In 1957 he accepted a Medical Research Council post at the University of Otago.

In due course, his research began to flourish, and he established an international reputation for his electron microscopic studies of synovial tissue, for his investigations of the nature and role of mucopolysaccharides in connective tissue, and for his careful therapeutic trials of anti-inflammatory drugs. He published over 40 papers in scientific journals and built up a large and active research group during his 19 years at Dunedin. He also established a first class clinical rheumatology service in the Dunedin and Wakari Hospitals.

Tom Highton was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1966 and a fellow of this College in 1970. He was president of the New Zealand Rheumatism Association, a councillor of the International League against Rheumatism, vice-president of the South East Asian and Pacific Area League against Rheumatism, and an honorary member of the American and Indian Rheumatism Associations. At the time of his death he was chairman of the ILAR standing committee for International Clinical Studies. He served on the executive of the Faculty of Medicine, and on the Medical Advisory Committee of the Otago Hospital Board and its ethical subcommittee, on the council of the Otago Medical Research Foundation, and as president of the Otago University Medical Research Society. In 1975 he was awarded a personal chair in medicine by the University.

He married Roberta Sibyl Janette, daughter of Joseph Samuel Baker, an engineer, in 1949, and they had four children; two sons and two daughters. John, Penelope, Paul and Clare. Clare also entered the medical profession, studying at Cambridge, and taking her MRCP(UK) in 1980.

Outside his professional work, Tom Highton’s interests lay in photography, boating and trout fishing, but he was also very active in promoting the welfare of disabled people. He was president and vice-president of his local Disabled Citizens Society for some years, and a ministerial nominee representing disabled people on the Dunedin District Committee of the Disabled Reestablishment League.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

[NZ Med. J., May 1976, 83, 376-7]

(Volume VII, page 260)

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