Lives of the fellows

William Walker

b.1 January 1920 d.18 December 1984
MA MB ChB St And(1946) MRCP(1950) FRCPE(1964) FRCP(1971)

Bill Walker was born in Dundee, the son of William Sharp Walker, who was engaged in the jute industry, and Joan Strachan. His intellectual precocity was evident at the Harris Academy in Dundee, and in 1936 he was awarded a Harkness residential scholarship in the faculty of arts in St Andrews where he read English literature, history and philosophy. His undergraduate career was distinguished and he was elected president of the Literary and Philosophical Societies. But he was also a robust all-rounder, enjoying the cut and thrust of interuniversity debate, membership of the Students’ Union Committee and captaincy of the boxing team ( he was only knocked out once in his boxing career - in a Brigade championship in the British Expeditionary Force in 1940). In the summer vacations he travelled extensively in Europe and he could sing romantic songs of several nations. Foreseeing the coming war he worked out an elaborate code with a friend in Czechoslovakia and throughout the war they kept up a correspondence in French.

At the outbreak of war he was commissioned in the Royal Scots and in 1940 he was badly wounded in Belgium and evacuated in coma via Dunkirk. The bullet that lodged in a temporal bone left him with permanent unilateral deafness, and he was ataxic for quite some time. Invalided from the Army in 1941, he returned to St Andrews to graduate MA, and then entered the faculty of medicine, graduating with commendation. He was house physician to Adam Patrick [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.368] whom he resembled in his broadly based education and erudition. He then held junior appointments in the department of pathology in Dundee, and with C C Ungley [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.427] in Newcastle. There he worked on the treatment of pernicious anaemia with concentrated liver extract and developed what was to be a life-long interest in haematology. He returned to Dundee as a lecturer in the department of therapeutics under R B Hunter, where he established an efficient haematological service and carried out research on disorders of blood coagulation and anticoagulant drugs. Walker then spent a year at Boston University and the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital, and in 1955 was appointed senior lecturer in therapeutics and consultant physician at Maryfield Hospital, Dundee.

Bill Walker had a wide range of extra-mural interests. He was a co-opted member of Dundee Education Committee, 1957-62. He championed the cause of secular, scientific humanism in a notable Sunday morning television series on religion and philosophy, ‘Seek the Truth’ 1962-63, and later he became president of the Edinburgh Humanist Group. An internationalist in outlook, he was co-founder of the Anglo-German Medical Society and for six years held its presidency. In 1963, as Colombo Plan adviser to the Burmese government, he helped set up a school of paramedical services.

In 1964 he was appointed consultant physician to the City Hospital, Aberdeen, where, as a general physician, he had charge of the wards dealing largely with infectious diseases. His first challenge was the Aberdeen typhoid epidemic, in which over 500 cases were diagnosed, and his hard work and enthusiasm over these months were in no small measure responsible for the low morbidity as well as the eventual containment of that outbreak. His profound understanding of drug therapy was particularly useful to him in developing a first-rate medical unit, and he was also able to continue his interest in haematology. His excellence as a teacher, both at the bedside and in the formal lecture, was recognized in his appointment as reader in clinical medicine. Indeed, such was his academic and professional recognition in Aberdeen that he was a natural choice to fill the Regius Chair of Materia Medica in 1973, following the untimely death of Alastair Macgregor [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.311].

Despite all his academic and extra-mural interests Bill Walker maintained that his first duty was to his patients, and he was a dedicated and compassionate doctor much loved by his patients and highly regarded by his clinical colleagues.

He had a genuine interest in the problems of medical students and young doctors, and it was very appropriate for him to be elected president of the Aberdeen University Medical Society. He readily accepted that committee work was an increasing part of a clinician’s activity, and his erudition and diplomacy were utilized to the full as chairman or member of many health service, university and national bodies. He was a member of the old board of management in Aberdeen and subsequently of the Grampian Health Board. As chairman of the Grampian Medicines Committee he fought for the introduction of a hospital formulary as a step towards rational prescribing. He was a member and subsequently vice-chairman of the committee on Review of Medicines.

Bill Walker’s eloquence, combined with his knowledge and love of history and the arts, attracted regular requests for impromptu or after-dinner speeches, many of which were spiced by references to his deeply felt political ideals, his commitment to the National Health Service, and his abhorrence of injustice. He often delighted his audience by ending a speech with a sonnet written for the occasion or with an appropriate operatic excerpt. He had been an accomplished sonneteer since his schooldays and it is hoped his poetry may be published posthumously. In 1931 he was the first Aberdeen based clinician to be elected president of the Harveian Society of Edinburgh. His oration, published in the Scottish Medical Journal, can be read and re-read with pleasure and, of course, it ends with a sonnet!

Ever since the earliest realization of the devastating capabilities of nuclear weapons he campaigned passionately against their existence and development, and believed that the medical profession, more than many others, could help prevent nuclear biocide. He was a founder and recently chairman of the Aberdeen branch of the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons.

In 1982, because of the necessity of cuts in university expenditure and in a characteristically unselfish manner, he took early retirement from his Regius chair and accepted a part-time teaching commitment as professor of clinical medicine. Again characteristically, he continued to teach as much as before but he began to envisage more opportunity to pursue his extra-mural interests - gardening, poetry, literature, music, philosophy and political controversy. Alas, it was not to be. He bore his final illness with courage and dignity, not deviating in any way from his lifelong philosophy. It is sad that his untimely death prevented the late flowering of his literary talent that his friends and admirers had expected.

He married in 1948 Mary Cathleen Kenny, a nurse trained in Dundee Royal Infirmary. She supported him loyally throughout his career and especially, along with their adopted children, Kenneth and Katrina, in his terminal illness.

PD Bewsher
KG Lowe

[Brit.med.J., 1985,290,641]

(Volume VIII, page 518)

<< Back to List