Lives of the fellows

Joseph Walter

b.17 December 1910 d.6 February 1979
BA Oxon(1933) MA BM BCh(1936) MRCP(1939) DMRE(1940) FFR(1952) FRCP(1973) DHMSA(1974)

The son of Abraham Walter, cap manufacturer of Salford, Lancashire, and of Fanny Green, whose father, Joseph, came from Jassy in Romania, Joseph Walter was born in Salford and had an outstanding scholastic career at Manchester Grammar School, topping the classical forms for six years before gaining a state scholarship, as well as the open scholarship, to Oriel College, Oxford, where he was senior classical scholar. However, medicine attracted him and he began his medical studies, responding to the inspiration of KJ Franklin, his tutor. Graduating first BA (honours school of animal physiology), Walter proceeded as Burney Yeo scholar to King’s College Hospital, qualifying in 1936. He gained clinical and pathological experience in King’s and Dulwich (1936 -1939) before his appointment as assistant medical officer to the Sheffield Radium Centre in 1940, the year after taking the MRCP and DMRE.

The rest of his life was to be spent in Sheffield, mainly as deputy director of the Sheffield National Centre for Radiotherapy (from 1943), but he served his adopted city in many other ways, not least as a Rotarian and member of the council of social service, and in establishing with his wife, Marianne, a chartered architect, and others, the ‘Dronfield Pioneer Health Centre’, on the lines of Scott-Williamson’s Peckham project. His concern for the welfare of others thus extended beyond the boundaries of medicine. Once involved in radiotherapy, he gave himself wholeheartedly to the care of patients and to the improvement of cancer treatment, not alone by radiation but also by chemotherapy, becoming one of the first true oncologists.

Patients found him compassionate and understanding, and colleagues valued his opinion. He was quick to appreciate the value of radioactive isotopes when they became available, using radio-gold in treating malignant effusions, and in 1960 wrote the first report of its replacement by yttrium. Earlier work on the spontaneous regression of cavernous haemangioma prompted the discontinuance of its treatment by radiation, and it was his advocacy that initiated the use of cytotoxic drugs in the Sheffield Centre, after he had, with habitual thoroughness, proved their safety and efficacy in preliminary trials. This work developed to embrace intra-arterial therapy, plus various combinations with surgery and radiation.

Joseph Walter’s interests were clinically determined rather than research orientated and, just as he responded to patients’ problems and needs, he understood the learning requirements of students at all levels of the caring professions. A Short Textbook of Radiotherapy, written with his physicist colleague Harold Miller, was an instant success on its first appearance in 1950, reaching a fourth edition just before his death; whilst his Cancer and Radiotherapy (1971 and 1977), intended as a short guide for nurses and medical students, attracted both commendatory reviews and appreciative letters from nursing tutors, and has gone into French, Italian and Spanish translations. He was widely read, with a positive hunger for knowledge in a variety of academic disciplines; was competent in three modem languages, and read the Greek classics in the original. He wrote two plays, one of which anticipated by two decades the Harrisburg nuclear accident. The University of Sheffield enjoyed his services as honorary clinical lecturer in radiotherapy for over thirty-six years, and later as honorary lecturer in the sub-department of the history of medicine; he served the cause of radiological education as a member of the fellowship board of the Faculty of Radiologists and had been an examiner both for that body and for the Society of Radiographers.

Joseph Walter was by nature a retiring man, but his enthusiasms were no less intense for being muted, and a gently ironic wit lent point to many of his debunking criticisms, and to his skilful pricking of the bubble of pretension. Though neither an organizer nor a committee man by inclination, he played a leading role in those causes which he espoused, such as the Wholetime Consultants Association of which he was honorary secretary, and Rotary, and he took his share in the planning of the Weston Park Hospital, a radiotherapy and oncology hospital wherein were concentrated the previously disparate provisions for radiotherapy services in the Sheffield area.

In July 1941, he married Marianne, daughter of Dr Emil Löhnberg of Hamm, Westphalia, a well known ENT specialist. There were two children, a boy and a girl, neither entering medicine. The humility of the scholar characterized this gentle, compassionate doctor, who served his fellows well.

Sir Thomas Lodge

[Brit.med.J., 1979, 1, 1157]

(Volume VII, page 588)

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