Lives of the fellows

Joseph Houston Wright

b.27 November 1899 d.21 December 1989
CBE(1962) MB ChB Glas(1922) MD(1933) FRFPS Glas(1933) MRCP(1949) FRCPE(1953) FRCP(1964)JP Hon LLD Glas(1966)

Joseph Houston Wright was born in the Townhead district of Glasgow, where his father William Wright was a cabinet maker. His mother Jeanie, née Houston, came from Broughshane, near Ballymena in Northern Ireland. His father died of tuberculosis while still a young man and his mother, a strong and determined character, had a long widowhood.

After early education at Whitehill School, Glasgow, Joseph entered the University of Glasgow intending to take a degree in mathematics and physics, but with the advent of war in 1914 he enlisted in the Army and served in the Tank Corps. By the time he returned to university his thinking had changed and he was grateful to the adviser of studies who suggested he should transfer to medicine. His clinicals were undertaken at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and after graduation, he became house physician to W K Hunter.

He also set up in general practice, in Maryhill, as at that time clinical appointments were part-time and were paid only a small honorarium An unexpected opportunity arose in 1927 when A W Harrington, later Muirhead professor of medicine, chose him to be his personal assistant at the Royal Infirmary. This appointment involved assisting with the teaching of a large clinic of students, with the bonus of access to the wards to examine and study patients.

At this stage of his career, Joseph Wright was attracted to neurology but by chance he saw a notice in the hospital entrance hall which indicated that the hospital required a ‘caraiographer’ and offered a salary of £25 p.a.; he got the post and thus entered the specialty of cardiology. In 1929 he gave a paper on the electrocardiogram in cardiac infarction to the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society of Glasgow. Another paper with Harrington in 1933, which reported on 148 cases of coronary thrombosis, confirmed the direction of his future career. However, until the appointment of L J Davis [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.143] all clinical posts were part-time and Wright continued to build up a large consulting practice extending widely over the West of Scotland.

In 1948, with the start of the NHS, Joseph Wright was appointed physician in charge of a general medical unit in the Infirmary. The unit expanded and the teaching of students was given high priority. Wright was a quiet and unpretentious man, who dressed formally but without pretension or elegance, and was not effusive in manner. His reassurance of patients was brief but effective because of his aura of strength and competence. The younger generation of postgraduates were fascinated by his clinical acumen and the emphasis on basic clinical skills; his ability to pick out a case with a hidden problem, which others had missed, was legendary.

He was at his best when teaching a small group by the bedside or in discussion around a table. His wide clinical experience and extensive reading were noteworthy. This was a time when cardiac catheterization was in its infancy and Wright would take trips to London to see John McMichael, later Sir John (q.v.), and Sharpey Schafer [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.372] who were pioneers in the procedure. Another major interest within the unit was the place of cholesterol in the aetiology of atheroma, and studies were done of the aorta and the coronary arteries. There were also continuing efforts in the area of clinical trials of drugs. Joseph Wright was a member of the MRC trials of anticoagulant therapy in myocardial infarction, and hypertension and angina clinics were a steady source of drug trials in addition to their diagnostic and therapeutic function.

On the administrative side, Wright was one of the original members of the western regional hospital board, chairman of the committee on the medical staffing structure of Scottish hospitals - which produced the Wright report in 1964 - and president of the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, 1960-62, steering it through the vital discussions leading to the change of name to ‘Royal College’. He was awarded the CBE in 1962.

Joseph Wright made four major contributions. He was an outstanding clinician both in general medicine and in cardiology; he had a keen eye for the principles and strategy of administration in the medical context; he gave outstanding service to the Glasgow College and his personal friendship with the Fraser family was no doubt a factor in the acquisition of the Fraser Library. He also gave sterling service to the University - serving on the University Court and playing an important role in the founding of the Walton Chair of Medical Cardiology.

He married Agnes Ross, daughter of an engineer, in 1937 and they had two daughters. Despite a busy life, he managed to play golf fairly regularly, and he was an avid reader of literature and the history of medicine. Many colleagues also enjoyed the friendly hospitality he and his wife provided in the relaxed domestic atmosphere at Bath Street, and later at Kirklee Road. Their two daughters are both married, and both are practising physicians. There are six grandchildren.

R Fife

[Brit.med.J., 1990,300,743]

(Volume IX, page 605)

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