Lives of the fellows

Donald Hugh Paterson

b.11 May 1890 d.12 December 1968
BA Manitoba(1912) MB ChB Edin(1916) MRCP(1921) MD(1928) FRCP(1929) FRCPC(1947)

Donald Hugh Paterson was born in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, the son of Hugh Savigny Paterson, a grain exporter, and Ella Lucilla, daughter of Edway Snider. He graduated from Manitoba College, Winnipeg, in 1912 and then came to this country to study medicine at Edinburgh University. He qualified MB ChB in 1916, took the Membership examination of the College in 1921, and his MD in 1928. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1929 and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada in 1947.

I first met Donald Paterson when I was a medical student in the early 1920’s, on a visit to Great Ormond Street. He was medical registrar, handsome and immaculately dressed, complete with cravat, and had a train of admiring Royal Free girls in his wake. I would like to concentrate on the man himself, an uncomplicated, shrewd, kindly, outspoken extrovert. Ponton spoke of him as ‘the homo ferox', particularly when he was denouncing the folly of those who disagreed with him over some new and somewhat revolutionary policy. But events proved that his judgment was usually correct.

In the frontispiece of Hector Cameron’s book on the British Paediatric Association is a drawing by Dorothy Paterson of her husband, Donald, endeavouring to persuade a doubtful Dr Still that a BPA must be founded. Standing beside them is James Spence, smilingly about to join in with some philosophical argument. It certainly needed Paterson’s driving force, wild enthusiasm, determination and uninhibited advocacy to sweep all opposition aside. The BPA was inaugurated at 28 Queen Anne Street, Still’s house, on 2 February 1928. This historic occasion proclaimed the man who was to do more than anyone in his time to advance paediatrics in this country.

One of the objects of the BPA is the promotion of friendship among paediatricians. This he always had in mind, partly because at times his manner and methods alienated some of his colleagues for a while. And yet it was really his idea that there should be a Great Ormond Street Dining Club, so that the unique spirit of the hospital would be maintained by its annual gatherings. In many ways he was before his time. Postgraduate teaching is a good example. He tried to introduce weekend courses; hundreds attended, but the breaking of the Sabbath was too much for some of the older physicians and the idea had to be abandoned. On the other hand, the famous ‘circus’ remains as a traditional feature of the teaching programme. Here Donald was the ringmaster and his ‘juniors’ the performers with acts which had to be short, snappy, and were never allowed to exceed the allotted time. This brings me to Donald and his housemen. His enormous drive and energy have already been mentioned, but he could be impatient and critical. There were times when Donald Paterson and his house physician communicated entirely by notes, but it was only a temporary rift, which was soon mended. Wilfred Sheldon recalls, as Out-Patient registrar, a delightful letter from Donald which read:
‘I greatly appreciate your help in Out-Patients between noon and 1 pm, but would prefer it between 9 and 10 am.’
As a houseman, trying to comply with his demands for six months was a stimulating and exhausting experience, but it paid dividends. Those who found themselves on his wavelength and had worked hard became his lifelong friends, and he would unsparingly help them in their careers.

Looking back on the year we were on the staff of Great Ormond Street together, there is no doubt that Donald Paterson succeeded in shaking the hospital to some extent out of what might have become a reactionary lethargy. He always had the welfare of the hospital at heart and strove to maintain its position and international fame. The same can be said about his other hospital, the Westminster, where he created a flourishing Paediatric Department. Outside, he was always promoting the claims of paediatricians in relation to the Ministry of Health, the Royal College of Physicians, and other bodies. When the College failed to fall in entirely with his ideas, he tried to establish a College of Child Health. This was in 1947 and it did not obtain general support, but since then paediatrics and the objects for which it is striving have been increasingly upheld.

The advent of a National Health Service and the possibility of bureaucratic control of the medical profession were too much for him and he decided to return to his native Canada and begin afresh. He was then 57, but that meant nothing. Returning to the Examination Hall he obtained all the necessary degrees to practise in that country. With the same energy, he set up a Health Centre for children and a Registry for those handicapped by chronic disease. These were only two of his schemes for the development of child care in Vancouver, and in recognition of his services he was appointed Clinical Professor of Paediatrics in the University of British Columbia.

In the autumn of his life he donated a substantial sum to the BPA to establish a Prize Essay. Commenting on this project he wrote that ‘it seemed to [him] that the next generation might swing to the extreme of not writing at all... it might be said that the previous generation wrote too much and [he] would not argue about that’. From one who was responsible for four books and some 60 articles, this was a curious but not unreasonable remark.

In 1923 he married Dorothy Reed, daughter of George William Blaikie, a stockbroker of Toronto. It was a supremely happy marriage, and Dorothy was a gifted and gracious companion. They had four sons. And in spite of all Donald’s interests and activities there was always time for golf, fishing or sailing, and for the generous entertainment of visitors. He was also continuously available to his residents. In many ways he was a King of Paediatrics. We owe him a great tribute for all his achievements, and he will remain a lovable personality in the memories of many people.

BE Schlesinger

[Brit.med.J., 1969, 1, 126; Lancet, 1968, 2, 1398; Times, 14 Dec 1968]

(Volume VI, page 365)

<< Back to List