Lives of the fellows

Frederick John Nattrass

b.6 August 1891 d.19 January 1979
MB BS Durh(1914) MRCS LRCP(1914) MD(1920) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1931) Hon DCL Newcastle(1974)

Frederick Nattrass was born in West Bromwich in the Midlands, son of the Reverend J Conder Nattrass BA BD, a Methodist minister, and his wife Hannah Clark. He had no brothers and one sister Charlotte, his senior by seven years, who was a fine musician and ultimately became deputy headmistress of a senior girl’s school. His father was well known in the Methodist Church and composed a hymn tune (Stainforth) which was included in the Old Methodist Hymn Book; he had three brothers who ran a miller’s business in Stockton on Tees.

Frederick was educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where his scientific and academic abilities were recognized and nurtured. When the family moved to the north-east of England he entered the dental school in Newcastle upon Tyne in the University of Durham, but soon transferred to the medical faculty and became one of the outstanding students of his generation, gaining the Turnbull prize in anatomy, and the Gibson prize in midwifery and in gynaecology. He obtained distinctions in no fewer than eleven subjects in the professional examinations during the medical course, graduating with first class honours in 1914. He then spent a year as a house physician and house surgeon in the Royal Victoria Infirmary and during this time, in the course of an illness, he was nursed by Gladys Vickers, the daughter of Benjamin Vickers of Lincoln, whom he married in 1915.

Afterwards he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served at home and in France, was captured by the Germans in their 1918 offensive and remained a prisoner in their hands for nine months. On his return to civilian life he took an appointment in the department of pathology at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, and then became a medical registrar. During the tenure of the latter appointment he gained the degree of doctor of medicine with the gold medal, awarded for the most distinguished doctorate submitted in that year. The subject of his essay was ‘The Diagnosis and Treatment of Injuries of the Peripheral Nerves’, an indication of his interest in neurology which remained throughout the whole of his professional life.

In 1921 he was appointed honorary assistant physician to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, becoming honorary physician in 1935. He also held appointments in neighbouring hospitals and quickly built up a large consulting practice. In 1941, on being appointed to the first whole-time chair of medicine in Newcastle, he at first curtailed and soon gave up consulting practice in order to devote his whole time and energy to the development of an outstanding department of medicine at the medical school and infirmary. It was typical of his high purpose that he made a very substantial financial sacrifice in order to accept this appointment, and also lost one of his deep and abiding interests, namely, the continuing and fruitful association with practitioners and patients in their own homes.

During his professional career, first as a physician and later as professor of medicine, he was an external examiner in medicine in the Universities of Bristol, Manchester, Belfast, St Andrews, Dublin and the National University of Ireland. He became a censor of the Royal College of Physicians in 1950-1952 and was senior censor from 1955 to 1956. He was president of the Newcastle upon Tyne and Northern Counties Medical Society from 1948 to 1949, president of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland from 1953 to 1954, president of the section of neurology of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1954 to 1955 and president of the Association of British Neurologists from 1957 to 1959.

After his retirement he was president of the 3rd International Congress on Muscle Diseases when this was held in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1974, and it was during that Congress that his old University conferred upon him an honorary doctorate in civil law.

After retiring from the chair of medicine in 1956 he served for a time as professor of medicine at the University of Lagos in Nigeria in 1962-1963.

When the Association of Physicians of the Northern Region was founded he was not only a founder member but also its first president, and he took a continuing interest in this Association until he eventually relinquished the presidency in 1976. Nattrass had a deep and continuing concern with the Medical Pilgrims, that small and select travelling club of physicians founded by Sir Arthur Hurst, of which he was a founder member and secretary for 25 years.

Early in his professional career, in 1931, he published a textbook entitled The Commoner Nervous Diseases and subsequently wrote the section on ‘Diseases of the Nervous System’ in Chamberlain’s Textbook of Medicine, published in 1951. He also did some interesting work on epilepsy which was the topic of his Lumleian lecture to the Royal College of Physicians. Latterly he became increasingly interested in diseases of muscle, and it was upon this topic that he gave his presidential address to the section of neurology of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1954. Not surprisingly, therefore, he was chosen as the first chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Group of Great Britain, and after his retirement devoted much of his substantial energy to furthering the interests of the Group and overseeing its administrative, research and financial affairs, with his customary combination of infinite tact, deep concern, rational judgement and fair-mindedness.

When, at the age of 84, he felt he could no longer attend regularly management and research committee meetings of the Group, it came as an immense pleasure to him that he was appointed its life president; even in 1978, despite deteriorating eyesight, hearing and general health, he continued to enquire perspicaciously about the Group and its affairs, remaining as sharp intellectually as ever, with continuing insight into the wider field of medicine.

Frederick Nattrass made a continuing contribution to medicine in Newcastle after his retirement through his activities as Pastoral Visitor in Medicine to the Northern Region. His judicial turn of mind enabled him to weigh evidence, to reach logical conclusions and to present these with clarity and force; as a physician he was precise, astute and yet compassionate and caring and as a teacher pragmatic, straightforward, never flashy nor given to flights of fancy but at the same time never dull. It was at the bedside rather than in the formal lecture theatre that his clinical acumen and kindly nature stood out, and his ward rounds were very popular with students and postgraduates. He had a considerable ability to gather around him young men and women of merit, including Henry Miller and Sir George Smart.

In his personal life Frederick Nattrass suffered many sadnesses, as his only son died young of Hodgkin’s disease; his first wife died in 1951, suddenly, while he was examining in the MRCP examination in London; and his sister Charlotte, the schoolmistress, with whom he later lived, died in 1961. He found great joy in the company of his two daughters Pamela and Anne, and their respective families, and after his retirement moved to the south of England to live near them. His second marriage in 1963 to the charming Helen Byrne Bryce, into whose beautiful home at Burford he then moved, greatly enriched his later years, though sadly she too died in 1971. But for eight years he was able to share with her his abiding interest in ornithology and in music and art. In his early days in Newcastle, Nattrass had been president of the ornithology section of the Natural History Society of Northumberland and loved to take visitors to see the birds on the Fame Islands. A life-long ambition was fulfilled when he managed with Helen a trip to the Galapagos Islands when they were both in their seventies. He also had a good singing voice and was for many years a member of the Bach Choir in Newcastle, and one of the foremost bases in the choir.

In his last few years, despite failing eyesight and general health he remained as bright, as cheerful, and as interested as ever, and when the writer called to see him at Little Cocklands in Burford only a few weeks before his death, he showed intense interest in Newcastle and its medical affairs. Generations of colleagues and students will miss this delightful man, small in stature but upright and kindly in character. Until a few weeks before he died he seemed ageless, wise and indestructible. He left a mark on Newcastle medicine which can never be erased.

Sir John Walton

[Brit.med.J., 1979, 1, 353, 483, 903, 1027; Lancet, 1979, 1, 225, 337; J. Neurol. Sci., 1979, 42 (1) 169]

(Volume VII, page 421)

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