Lives of the fellows

Verna Wright

b.28 December 1928 d.31 January 1998
MB ChB Liverp(1953) MD(1956) MRCP(1958) FRCP(1970)

Verna Wright was professor of rheumatology at Leeds and an evangelical preacher. He was born in Devonport, the son of Thomas William Wright, an officer in the Royal Navy. His father died in Hong Kong when Verna was only six and, as the elder son at the time of the depression, he assumed the mantle of ‘the man of the house’, while his mother found work.

Verna obtained a scholarship to Bedford School and, after contracting and overcoming meningitis, went on to gain a scholarship to study veterinary science at Liverpool University. As a schoolboy different aspects of his character became apparent; he boxed with vigour, but was also influenced by the published sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his associated Christian youth organizations. As a scientist he enjoyed mathematics and engineering, but also became a believer and promoter of the Genesis version of creation, forever sceptical of evolution and natural selection.

Whilst at Liverpool University he co-founded United Beach Missions which initially took the Gospel message to families on holiday at nearby Llandudno and later, under his chairmanship, grew as an organization, working throughout Europe. He also persuaded the dean to allow him to switch to medicine in spite of the competition from servicemen returning from the Second World War.

After qualifying he enjoyed a formative attachment as senior house officer to A J S Hill at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. This fired his interest in rheumatology and he arrived in Leeds in 1956 as research assistant to S J Hartfall [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.251], who had pioneered the use of injectable gold for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in Britain. Two years later Verna moved to the division of applied physiology, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, as a research fellow. Here he developed his interest in joint lubrication, an interest he retained, together with bioengineering and the development of artificial joints, throughout his career.

On his return to Leeds he was appointed successively lecturer, then senior lecturer and finally, in 1970, to a personal chair in rheumatology. This was in recognition of his seminal pioneering work, describing and classifying the seronegative arthopathies which, he hypothesized, would one day come to be accepted as a separate disease entity to rheumatoid arthritis. During his professional lifetime the shrewdness of this clinical observation was vindicated as that group of diseases was segregated from rheumatoid arthritis on immunological and genetic grounds. The author of over 1000 publications and 1200 communications, as well as many books, he remained active in research until his retirement.

Under his guidance the rheumatology department in Leeds expanded progressively with the development first of bioengineering, then rehabilitation, then clinical pharmacology. It remained a prerequisite that leaders of these diverse research groups retained a foothold in clinical medicine, whilst unification was provided through Verna’s attendance at quarterly research review meetings within each discipline.

An infrequent attendee at those local committee meetings he considered ineffectual, he played a pivotal national role in British rheumatology, as an adviser to the Chief Medical Officer and as a member of the Committee on Safety of Medicines. Early in his career he was appointed Heberden Roundsman and later Heberden Orator. He was president of the Heberden Society from 1976 to 1977 and then president of the British Association for Rheumatology and Rehabilitation from 1978 to 1980. These two distinctions placed him in a unique ambassadorial position to bring about the amalgamation of these two societies, at one point rivals, to form the British Society for Rheumatology in 1984.

For many years he held key positions with the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council (subsequently renamed the Arthritis Research Campaign), the major charity funding arthritis research in the United Kingdom. After an initial apprenticeship on both the research and education sub-committees, and a period as chair of the latter, he was entrusted with the chairmanship of the newly constituted standing committee on academic development and research in 1989. For the next four years he, more than anybody else, masterminded the explosive and successful development of academic rheumatology throughout the country. It came as no surprise to his colleagues that in 1993 he was invited to become the ‘elder statesman’ of the organization as the chair of its executive and finance committee, a part-time appointment he held until his death.

A regular attendee at scientific meetings world-wide, his participation in the auditorium was occasional unless he was acting as the firm but impartial chairman, a role for which he was much sought after. Always idiosyncratic, he was more frequently to be found prominently seated at a table close to the entrance where, with his inimitable chuckle, he held court and gave advice to all those who came to seek it. The evening would find him, not socializing, but preaching an invited sermon at a local evangelical church.

His evangelism was just as important to him as his medicine. A preacher of great power, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible (which he read cover to cover each year), he served as vice-president of the Lord’s Day Observance Society and secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship. The door of his office, wide open to all members of staff by day, closed firmly at 5 o’clock on those occasions when he was due to give an evening sermon (for which he often travelled as much as 200 miles).

In 1952 he married Esther Margaret Brown, the daughter of a farmer, to whom he was devoted. They had four sons and four daughters before adopting a fifth son. His children and many grandchildren brought him great pleasure. In addition to street preaching (his regular Tuesday lunchtime sermons in Leeds City Square were legendary), his home became a social focus for the members of his research team and their spouses (creating a potential audience of over one hundred) when, at quarterly intervals, a buffet supper was followed by a talk designed to provoke religious discussion. Throughout the proceedings the children served soft drinks. Their father, a man of large stature and huge presence, chaired proceedings, his ready chuckle heard throughout the house.

Sadly, and ironically, he experienced bone pain within a year of his retirement on a lecture tour of China and, on his return, was found to have cancer of the prostate. The religious work he had planned for his retirement was denied him, though he retained his part-time commitment to his extensive medico-legal practice and to the Arthritis Research Campaign until his death. His children returned from around the world to be with their father. His thanksgiving service had to be moved to Leeds Town Hall in order to accommodate the 1,300 people who braved inclement weather to pay final tribute. The occasion was an exultant one, almost celebratory, befitting the achievement of the man and the respect in which he was held.

H A Bird

[;1998,316,1679; The Guardian 6 Feb 1998; The Times 26 Feb 1998]

(Volume XI, page 643)

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