b.19 March 1892 d.26 May 1954
MC(1919) Kt(1950) MB BS Durh(1914) MD Durh(1921) Hon DSc W Aust(1948) Hon LLD Cincinnati(1951) MRCP(1921) FRCP(1930)
James Spence was born at Amble, Northumberland, the son of David Magnus Spence, an architect, and Isabella, née Turnbull, both of Northumberland stock. He went up in 1920 to the Durham Medical College, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, from Elmfield College, York, and immediately after graduation was immersed in the First World War. He served with the R.A.M.C, in Gallipoli, France and Belgium, and as a bearer officer was awarded the Military Cross and bar for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. After demobilisation he was a house physician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, and a casualty officer at Great Ormond Street Hospital before spending two years at St. Thomas’s Hospital as John and Temple fellow.
In 1922 he returned to his parent hospital as medical registrar and chemical pathologist, and in 1924 joined the staff of the Newcastle Babies’ Hospital where he and his colleagues very soon had a national reputation for what became known as social paediatrics. A year as Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, was followed by his appointment as assistant physician to the Royal Victoria Infirmary. There he took increasing interest in paediatrics, became associated with child welfare in the city health department, and undertook a number of medico-social enquiries on its behalf, the results of which were published as Investigation into the health and nutrition of certain of the children of Newcastle-upon-Tyne between the ages of one and five years (1934).
At the same time and in subsequent years he carried out a number of clinical researches, the most important of which was one of the earliest controlled trials, namely clinical tests of the antirachitic activity of calciferol (Lancet, 1933, 2, 911-15). In 1939, as honorary physician, he took charge of all children’s beds in the Infirmary. As he was also in charge of the paediatric department of the Newcastle General Hospital and physician to the Babies’ Hospital he had full play for his abilities in teaching and research, and was therefore the obvious choice for the newly founded Nuffield chair of child health in the University in 1942.
He was immediately involved in medical research, education and administration at national level, becoming a member of the University Grants Committee in 1943 and of the Medical Research Council in 1944. With the introduction of the National Health Service he became an original member of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee. At the College he served on the committee of Younger Fellows, was the first chairman of the Committee on Social and Preventive Medicine, gave the Bradshaw lectures of 1939 and the Charles West lecture of 1946, and was a Councillor, 1941 to 1943. He was Cutter lecturer at Harvard and Blackader lecturer in Canada in 1949. He was knighted in 1950. The University of Cincinnati gave him an honorary LL.D., and the University of Western Australia an honorary D.Sc.
Spence was a skilful physician with a wide experience of men and affairs, and a stimulating teacher. He was slight in build, and lithe and strong; in his youth he was a first-class athlete and in later years an experienced mountaineer. Vivid and occasionally difficult, he yet had an innate kindliness that endeared him to his friends. In 1920 he married Kathleen Downie Leslie, of Aberdeen. They had one son and four daughters.
Richard R Trail
[Brit.med.J., 1954, 1, 1327-8 (p); Lancet, 1954, 1, 1190-94 (p), 1247-8, 1302 (p); Med.J.Aust., 1954, 2, 41-2; Newc. med. J., 1954, 24, 245-7 (p); Northern Echo, Darlington, 27 May 1954 (p); Times, 27 May 1954; Sir J. C. Spence. The Purpose and practice of medicine...; with a memoir by Sir John Charles. London,1960.]
(Volume V, page 386)
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