Lives of the fellows

James Michael Watt

b.5 July 1914 d.17 September 1988
MB ChB Otago(1937) MRCP(1948) DCH(1948) FRACP(1968) FRCP(1969)

James (Jim) Watt was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, the son of Michael Herbert Watt, a general practitioner, and his wife Mary Roberta McCahon. Three generations of Watts have been at the forefront of medicine in New Zealand. Jim was educated at Wellesley College and went on to Wellington College, where he was head prefect, athletic champion and rugby player; he was a member of the 1st XV. He completed his first year at Victoria University of Wellington and entered the Otago Medical School in 1933, where he was noted for his rugby prowess and played for the university ‘A’ team in 1935-36. He was an All Black in 1936 and played on the wing twice against the visiting Australian team He was also a good performer in track events. After graduation he spent two years as a house surgeon at the Wellington Hospital, and on the outbreak of the 1939-45 war he volunteered for military service and went to the Middle East with the 3rd Echelon in 1940. He then served for four years with the New Zealand Army Medical Corps in North Africa and Italy, being mentioned in despatches. Before going to the Middle East, Jim married Esther Goss, a nurse at the Wellington Hospital, and they had three sons and a daughter.

Jim Watt was repatriated in 1944 and entered general practice as an assistant in Lower Hutt, where his principals were responsible for general and paediatric beds at the newly opened Hutt Hospital. Jim was attracted to paediatrics and decided to specialize. In 1948 he came to the UK to follow a postgraduate course at the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street, obtaining the diploma in child health and his membership of the College.

On his return to the Hutt Hospital he was given sole charge of the children’s ward. For several years he had a mixed medical and paediatric practice but by 1953 he was essentially a paediatrician. In 1963 he was appointed to the visiting staff of the Wellington Hospital and moved into Wellington. During the years that followed he became known as an astute physician and a thoughtful colleague. He recognized the needs of the community and encouraged the budding New Zealand Parents’ Centre. He was also an important adviser to the Plunket Society.

When the University of Otago obtained funding for a department of paediatrics, Jim Watt was appointed as its head and became the country’s first professor of paediatrics in 1967. The new department flourished and soon had a highly regarded teaching programme both for undergraduates and postgraduates. Many of his students have gone on to make their mark elsewhere. Community aspects of child health were promoted and a combined family clinic was set up with the late Peter Lewis, a child psychiatrist. The clinic continued after Peter Lewis's tragic death and was supported by Basil James and Roy Muir. When Arthur Veale proposed a national testing centre for inborn errors of metabolism it had major support from Dunedin; the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development unit was formed and has continued to provide important information about child development. Jim was a good administrator and university affairs were not neglected; he was provost from 1972-73 and clinical dean in 1973. From 1973-77 he served as a university member on the Otago Hospital board.

Jim Watt was an important figure in the development of paediatrics as a separate discipline in New Zealand. No finer man could have been found to occupy the foundation chair. It would be hard to define the essence of this widely talented and accomplished man. He had great vitality; he could work long and late and rise fresh in the morning. This enabled him to write a textbook of paediatrics while running a general practice and a busy children’s ward. He had a remarkable ability to enter into rapport with a sick child, a ready wit, a wise understanding of human weakness, and unwavering loyalty to his friends.

His three sons, Michael, James and Richard, all practice medicine. His daughter, Barbara, is married and a physiotherapist in London. Jim was survived by his wife and children, and also by his mother, aged 101, who is in the Lady Alum Home at Auckland.

V C Luniewska

[NZ med.J., Jan 1989,27]

(Volume IX, page 562)

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