Lives of the fellows

Walsh McDermott

b.24 October 1909 d.17 October 1981
BA Princeton(1930) MD Columbia(1934) FRCP*(1968) Hon DSc Princeton(1974) Dartmouth(1976)

Son of a family doctor in New Haven, Connecticut, Walsh McDermott attended the public schools of that city. He did premedical work at Princeton University, and then studied for the MD degree at Columbia University Medical School. For intern and residency training he moved across Manhattan Island, to the New York Hospital, teaching hospital of the Cornell Medical College. This was the beginning of a lifelong association with Cornell.

During the early part of his medical career he was invalided repeatedly by flare-ups of pulmonary tuberculosis. For that he went through tedious periods of rest treatment at Saranac Lake, and later was given streptomycin therapy. In 1950, after partial pulmonary resection and isoniazid treatment, the disease was brought under control. Though handicapped afterwards by noticeable pulmonary insufficiency he was able to carry on a busy, rigorous life, involving much travel at home and abroad.

In the early phase of his academic career McDermott engaged in clinical academic medicine, with a special interest in the infectious diseases. He was soon given responsibility for the infectious disease division of the department of medicine at Cornell. Early on, syphilis was a major medical problem, and he made observations of arsenical therapy, then of penicillin when that became available. In 1948, after the discovery of chloramphenicol he went to Mexico, to conduct a study comparing three drugs: amphotericin B, tetracycline, and chloramphenicol; this gave a clearcut demonstration of the superiority of chloramphenicol. He was, of course, personally concerned about the chemotherapy of tuberculosis, and made some of the pioneer investigations of the pharmacodynamics of streptomycin in man. Later he was offered the opportunity to test the efficacy of the newly discovered isoniazid, in tuberculosis. For that work he shared the Lasker award with three colleagues (1955).

In his experimental laboratories McDermott worked in collaboration with a succession of able younger colleagues, among whom were two fellows of this College: John Batten and Harold Lambert. The central theme of their research was the phenomenon of microbial ‘persistence’, i.e., the capacity of some microorganisms to survive for weeks or months in cells or tissues of a host animal, in spite of continued treatment with an agent to which the organism retains in vitro sensitivity. This property is notable in M. tuberculosis and T. pallidum. For this work, as well as the early studies with chloramphenicol, streptomycin and isoniazid, he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences (1967).

In the course of the isoniazid study McDermott encountered something that brought about a change in the character of his endeavours. To test the drug against severest forms of the disease he had gone to the southwest United States to try its effect in tuberculous meningitis and miliary tuberculosis. Those forms of tuberculosis were known to be common events among the Navajo Indians, in their reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. Indeed the drug proved able to save some lives, but in the course of the experience McDermott was appalled at health conditions in that disadvantaged ethnic group living within the continental United States.

He determined to find out what could be done by bringing modern methods of diagnosis and treatment to the Navajo population. He took over the chairmanship of Cornell’s department of public health, and organized a programme to bring modern clinical medicine to the Navajo people. The experiment went on for six years. The result was enlightening though discouraging: it was clear that sophisticated medical care is not enough to improve the health of people who have insufficient food and drinking water, who live in extreme poverty, and who lack modern sanitary services.

McDermott’s ‘statistical compassion’ - a phrase he frequently used — also found fulfilment near home. In New York’s inner city areas, especially Brooklyn and Harlem, he and colleagues explored the subjects of drug addiction, air pollution, and health care delivery.

This broad range of interest and experience made him a much sought after adviser, to New York City, New York State, and to the federal government. He came to be thought of as one of his country’s leading medical statesmen, and served on dozens of advisory committees. He wrote extensively on various aspects of health care, and was invited to give many named lectureships at home, as well as the Heath Clark lectures in London. For the federal government he led a task force which drew up a blueprint of a programme to improve living conditions of the American Indian. He served as chairman of the United States delegation, of more than 100 scientists, to a United Nations conference in Geneva on application of science and technology for underdeveloped countries. When Princeton University awarded him an honorary degree, the citation read, in part: ‘As a pioneer in adapting modern medicine to primitive societies and as an innovator in the spread of the public health services of the nation, he has always kept as his goal the well-being of society as a necessary corollary of the health of the individual’.

Along with his other activities McDermott served for 25 years as editor of the American review of respiratory diseases, and for 20 years as co-editor of the Cecil textbook of medicine.

During the last nine years of his life he gradually shifted his base of operations from Cornell to Princeton, where he served as special adviser to the president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This gave him scope to study, and experiment with methods to improve systems of health care delivery in the United States.

At the same time he was serving as a trustee of Columbia University, and actively participating in the affairs of the Foreign Policy Association of New York.

One of his assets was facility in the use of words. As David Rogers put it: ‘There are few individuals whose words can capture one’s ear or mind in compelling ways, but Walsh was one of them. The turn of a phrase, an unusual or amusing analogy, a particularly noble ring to a sentence, a lucid rendering of a complex idea — such were the treats awaiting a listener or reader’.

He married Marian MacPhail while a resident at the New York Hospital. She followed a notable career in journalism, becoming a member of the editorial board of Life magazine. Their friends, in medicine, journalism, New York City politics, and in sports, made for them a full life. They shared a great affection for New York City with all its problems, and they worked to find solutions to some of those problems.

Walsh McDermott carried on actively and successfully, until the moment of his sudden death.

P Beeson

* 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.."

(Volume VII, page 355)

<< Back to List