Lives of the fellows

Leslie John Witts

b.21 April 1898 d.19 November 1982
MB ChB Manch(1923) MD(1926) MRCP(1926) FRCP(1931) DSc Dublin(1955) MD Bristol(1961) Hon DM(1938)

Leslie Witts was both an early and a late developer, having a brilliant career in medical school at Manchester, and in junior research appointments in Cambridge, in the USA and at Guy’s Hospital, and yet to the end of his days maintaining great breadth of interest, and revealing new talents of self-expression in the series of ‘Personal Views’ which he contributed to the British Medical Journal. His early distinction as a clinical investigator and an outstanding teacher led to his appointment while still in his thirties to the chair of medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School. The four years which he spent at Bart’s were important, and marked by his studies on iron-deficiency anaemia, on the treatment of haematemesis, and on the dangers of ritual purgation, a contribution which deserves to be ranked with Richard Asher’s later questioning of the value of arbitrary periods of rest in bed. While at Bart’s, Leslie Witts developed a close collaboration with the surgical unit, directed by Paterson Ross. These years at Bart’s were happy ones, but he was not the man to refuse a challenge, and he accepted the invitation to become the first Nuffield professor of clinical medicine, and to set up a full-time medical unit in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford.

Although he must in 1938 have foreseen the possibility of war, he could not have expected its duration, nor the additional burdens which would be laid on his infant department by the development of an undergraduate clinical school at Oxford, and by the increase in national advisory commitments which naturally came the way of a physician of his wide knowledge and clearly expressed wisdom. He was already a member of the Medical Research Council when war broke out, and he served a second term from 1943 to 1947. These must have been difficult years, with both the pressure of external commitments, and the continued need to press for the replacement of makeshift accommodation by a building worthy to house a major clinical and research department; yet he was always accessible to his junior colleagues, and he maintained a considerable practice, particularly but by no means exclusively in clinical haematology. As his Harveian oration of 1971 clearly shows, he took a broad view of the responsibilities of a professor of medicine. He believed that in the clinical sphere these involved competence in general medicine as well as in a specialty, and the competence to evaluate the psychological and social aspects of illness, as well as its organic aspects. Modern medicine is quite often criticized for being long on science and technology, and short on compassion. Leslie Witts both preached and practised a different outlook, saying ‘One of the lessons the clinical student and the young doctor has to learn is how to gain both the respect and the affection of their patients’.

The early struggles to attain adequate accommodation were belatedly successful in the post-war years, and allowed the growth of an internationally renowned department, attracting a stream of graduates from home and overseas, and ultimately successors of the calibre of Paul Beeson and David Weatherall. In these same years, Leslie Witts was quick to see the importance of the developing subject of clinical pharmacology — had not the first therapeutic administration of penicillin been carried out in his wards? He was a member of the Committee on Safety of Drugs, and he took a particular interest in clinical trials, editing a book on that topic. Through more than a quarter of a century in a leading chair of medicine, he set an example of well-informed and broadly based medical practice, and provided research opportunities and leadership for numbers of people. In his later years, he no doubt sacrificed his personal research to creating opportunity for others; and he summed up his own particular skill better than anyone else could have done, when he said ‘My scientific leanings are those of a student, with emphasis on the synthesis and application of knowledge rather than on discovery’. What he did not say was that in these particular areas, and in his exposition of them, he was beyond all praise. Not only did he do the office of his vocation sincerely - he also helped the commonalty of physicians in two notable ways: he was a very popular secretary, and later president, of the Association of Physicians; and in the Royal College of Physicians he gave Goulstonian and Lumleian lectures, and he was Harveian orator and vice-president.

Leslie Witts was characteristically helpful to his memorialist by revealing a good deal of his own view of himself, both in the Lancet, as ‘Doctor Don’, in 1939, and later on in the ‘Personal Views’ series in the BMJ. In these papers, he tells of his religious upbringing - ‘Strict upbringing as a Congregationalist has left me with an indelible imprint of Christian morality’. Like so many doctors he could appreciate and express both the fascination and the fulfilment of medicine, yet remain aware of the frequent tragedies inherent in the human condition. Having said that ‘such poetry as medicine brings is in the elegiac vein’- and he quotes particular instances of sorrow - he goes on to say, ‘For all that, there can be no life with greater opportunities for delight in work than medicine’. I think he was exaggerating in both directions when he claimed in 1939 to have exhibited ‘my particular blend of evangelism and hellenism, of St Anthony and Dionysus’ — for like the rest of us, he was neither saint nor libertine, but a man who recognized clearly that, in his words, ‘It is not given to mortal men to be the arbiters of life and death, or to solve the riddles of the Universe. We must constantly remind ourselves of the dangers of arrogance and cherish the virtue of humility’. And it was not a Dionysus who said ‘Libertarianism and permissiveness finally destroy true freedom’.

As a mentor of a fledgling research worker and physician, he was quite ideal - his vast store of erudition was open to a questioner, he took infinite pains over the presentation of papers, and he gave patient and strong support in those inevitable periods when the research is going badly. I first knew him in a time of national danger, and of endless local frustrations, which must have worried any man as sensitive as Leslie; but he was selfish only in this, that he kept these worries to himself, and did not share them with his colleagues — though he may have done with his family. He could at times be preoccupied — who would not, in such circumstances? But those of us who were privileged to see him at home could be in no doubt of the essential warmth of his character.

In 1929 he married Nancy Grace, younger daughter of LF Salzman, the historian. They had one son and three daughters, and at the time of his death there were ten grandchildren. It was a long and very happy marriage. Nancy sustained him through his professional life, and her unfailing support proved invaluable during the last years, when he was somewhat frail.

Sir Douglas Black

[, 1982, 285, 1667-8; Times, 23 Nov 1982]

(Volume VII, page 618)

<< Back to List