Lives of the fellows

John Henry Walters

b.17 May 1909 d.5 June 1993
BA Cantab(1931) MRCS LRCP(1934) MB BChir(1934) MRCP(1935) FRCP(1958) MRCPE(1958) FRCPE(1960)

Born and buried in Chudleigh, John Walters was a man of Devon from first to last. His father had been the local general practitioner. Although John travelled much of the world in his career, he retired to fish his beloved River Dart, tend his garden and be chief medical officer to the Newton Abbot Steeplechase.

He was educated at Clifton, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, and in 1937, becoming specialist physician in 1942. During the second world war he saw active service in Iraq and Egypt, as officer in command of several medical divisions, and was mentioned in despatches. He developed an affection for the Indian soldier and his family and acquired a deep knowledge of their historical and cultural backgrounds; this provided the basis of his profound interest in all his patients in later years and made his relation with them so special.

He was directly involved in the care of Far East prisoners of war released from Japanese concentration camps and immediately became interested in the neurological consequences of prolonged malnutrition. He wrote original papers on cardiovascular beri-beri and protein deficiency and through his appointment to the Ministry of Pensions unit at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, he continued his interest in the ex-prisoners; an appointment which ran coincidental with his major appointment at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. His understanding of the background of these POWs, and of what they had suffered, led him to support them in many ways. He always wore immaculate suits of Harris tweed that had been woven by the Far East POW crofters, at a time when their industry was in peril. He continued to serve on pension boards until well after his retirement.

After the war he extended his interest in malnutrition to nutrition, working for the Nutrition Research Station in The Gambia, 1948-51, researching with John Waterlow the effect of malnutrition on the liver of Gambian children, and later as medical officer in charge of the West African Council for Medical Research, Lagos, 1954-56. These posts were separated by three years in Kuwait, which he regarded as sterile and unsympathetic, although certain sheiks insisted for the rest of their lives that no other physician would do.

From 1958-74 he served as consultant physician at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. His background experience abroad was immense; he was skilled in all aspects of general medicine, from psoriasis to diabetes, and equally from malaria to leprosy. His knowledge of liver disease made him de facto hepatologist to University College Hospital; Max Rosenheim [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, 394] and he turned to one another to solve their difficult cases. His deep sense of commitment to his patients and his clinical skills made him an example to a generation of young doctors and he set several on their careers in the tropics. He was instrumental in inviting the new professor of clinical nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, John Waterlow, to set up his unit of clinical nutrition and metabolism at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases where he and Andrew Tompkins carried out important work on tropical sprue in travellers returning from India.

In many ways, John Walters was a shy and retiring man. He read widely and abstracted the medical literature into his own notebooks throughout his life, but he spoke well and was a good lecturer because he knew the essentials of the subject. He had a warm smile and an impish sense of humour, and would quietly point out the ridiculous and tease the pompous. A keen sportsman, he represented Devon at squash racquets and lawn tennis. His cricketing skills are still remembered nostalgically by senior Gambian statesmen. Always a naturalist, he loved fishing and continued to fish until two hip replacements and several mini-strokes finally kept him from the riverbank.

In 1937 he married Janet née McIntyre, always known as Jane, the daughter of a general practitioner. They were very happy and she looked after him until the end. They had a daughter, Julia, and a son, Humphrey, and lots of unruly dachshunds.

ADM Bryceson

(Volume IX, page 549)

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