Lives of the fellows

Martin Ware

b.1 August 1915 d.23 September 1998
MB BS Lond(1939) MRCP(1945) FRCP(1967) MSc Wales(1978) BA Open Univ(1989)

Editors are often characterised as hyperactive people, even show-offs, ready to dash off an opinion on any topic of the moment. On these premises, Martin Ware should not have been the forward-looking editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that he proved to be. Unhappy as a writer, and inhibited by self-doubts, he was as different from his predecessor, the ebullient but irascible and autocratic Hugh Clegg [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.103], as anybody could have been. Yet, for all the journal’s fireworks and influence (particularly in the debates before the NHS), Clegg had left his ‘platform’ in disarray: the large publishing house lacked a clear and consistent direction and many of the staff felt insecure and undervalued.

Under Ware’s editorship all this was to change. He had had experience of good organizational and editorial practice, and his training at the Medical Research Council (MRC), where from 1946 to 1950 he had edited its annual reports and helped in preparing a study on medical research during the War, proved invaluable in reforming the BMJ. No less important was his character: patient, modest and dependable. For he saw himself, to use his own words, as the chairman of the committee rather than as a general of an army.

He introduced order into the organization and enthused members of the staff, encouraging them not only to contribute much more to the journal, but also to forge new contacts at home and abroad. This done, he embarked on remodelling the whole BMJ. He tightened up the rigour of peer review of submitted articles, paid particular attention to enlivening the correspondence columns, and introduced new features.

One of his coups was the article on prophyria in George III and previous and subsequent members of the Royal family by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter. Dismissed out of hand by Clegg as worth no more than a couple of lines, Ware had had this quietly peer reviewed and, assured of its credibility, retained it to publish in the first issue under his control. Despite the immense controversy, Ware lived to see the substance of the claims not only made into a play and film but also vindicated by more recent historical and medical research, including DNA testing of various remains.

Nowhere were Ware’s qualities better seen than in an extended libel action brought against the BMJ. Concern had been expressed in the newspapers about the deaths associated with the combination of conservative dentistry and methohexitone anaesthesia undertaken by a single operator-anaesthetist. After peer review the BMJ had published an original article by an academic anaesthetic team together with an editorial showing the deleterious physiological effects of this practice. Its proponent, a dentist, S L Drummond-Jackson, sued the team and the BMJ for libel, holding that the articles impugned his professional competence. Ware had offered him the customary riposte in the correspondence section, but this had been refused. After a prolonged court hearing the case ended when Drummond-Jackson agreed to the publication of a joint statement. Worn down by many weeks of work and court hearings, several members of both sides (as well as those responsible for the legal costs) spoke of ending the hearing before arriving at closure. But Ware was a natural champion of the need for freedom in scientific debate, and his steadfastness in this case did much to inspire fellow editors to continue this tradition.

Born into a family which had had a medical man in every generation since the middle of the 18th century (including Sir George Baker PRCP [Munk's Roll, Vol.II, p.213]), Martin Ware qualified at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1939. After house appointments at Bart’s he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1940 to 1945, in Nigeria and India. He obtained the MRCP in 1945, and worked as publications officer for the MRC from 1946 to 1950, the year in which he was appointed assistant editor of the BMJ. He was promoted to deputy editor in 1964 and editor in 1966, retiring in 1975.

It was Ware himself who often mused that he had ever been a round peg in a square hole. Educated at Eton (as a clergyman at the Chapel Royal, Windsor, his father had the right to send his son there as a dayboy), he had felt ill at ease in the presence of so many aristocratic and wealthy schoolfellows. He regretted never having been to Oxbridge, which might well have changed his career choice given the strong academic bent shown after retirement. He had considered specializing in surgery, passing his primary FRCS examination before joining the Army, but in Africa was persuaded to sit for the MRCP, which to his astonishment he passed at the first attempt. Perhaps the metier that would have put him at ease was to have lived a century earlier, as a polymath-divine.

Always interested in reading, bird watching and alpines (and also dinghy sailing and rock climbing when younger), after retirement he moved to Aberystwyth, where at the university he pursued another hobby that had increasingly filled his time: the study of microfossils. Publishing several papers, he worked on a thesis, gaining an MSc, while in 1989, after moving to Cambridge to be nearer his family, he took an Open University BA arts degree.

In 1938 Ware married Winifred Elsie Boyce, a Bart’s staff nurse. They had two sons and three daughters.

Stephen Lock

[Brit.med.J., 1998,317,1323]

(Volume XI, page 602)

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