Lives of the fellows

Walter Van't Hoff

b.21 May 1924 d.9 May 2002
MB BChir Cantab(1946) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1971)

Walter van't Hoff was an excellent physician in general medicine and endocrinology, whose opinion was always greatly valued. He served the community of North Staffordshire with distinction for 27 years. Metabolic medicine and medical education remained closest to his heart.

Walter was born in Rustington, Sussex, of Dutch ancestry. His father was a distinguished architect and his great uncle, Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff, won the first Nobel prize for chemistry in 1901. On his mother's side Pieter Cornelius Hooft was considered the most brilliant representative of Dutch Renaissance literature (1600-1800).

Before the Second World War, Walter lived with his family in Switzerland where he went to school. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he came with his parents to England and went to Bryanston School and then to Queen's College Cambridge, where he read natural sciences. He was inspired by Wilhelm Feldberg [Munk's Roll, Vol.IX, p.169] who was one of his tutors. He sat his tripos in 1941 and qualified in 1946. As a junior doctor he worked at Guy's and the Brompton Hospitals. He met and married Rosemary whilst they both were training at the Westminster Hospital.

In 1956 Walter was appointed a research fellow in endocrinology at Harvard University and during his year there he developed his special interest in metabolic disease. Before completing his training back at the Westminster Hospital as senior registrar, he and Rosemary drove 11,000 miles across the USA.

In 1962 he was appointed consultant physician at the North Staffordshire Hospital Centre. These were exciting times in North Staffordshire: they had been considered as a centre for a new undergraduate medical school associated with the University of Keele (Todd report 1960). The consultant body set up a dynamic group, of which Walter was one, to establish the renowned postgraduate medical school.

In 1965, Walter started a separate first class metabolic unit with five beds and associated research laboratory. His special interest was in thyroid and parathyroid diseases - accurate diagnosis and medical management were his main concern. He took on a busy clinical commitment.

He was a consummate chairman, whether of the medical division of the hospital or of regional committees in Birmingham in endocrinology. He was a staunch supporter of the endocrine section of the Royal Society of Medicine and was president of the section in 1983. He gave his presidential address on his work with calcium and parathyroid disease. Besides his fellowship of the RSM, he valued being elected in 1975 a member of the Association of Physicians and enjoyed their meetings during the rest of his professional life.

Clinical audit was another abiding interest, and throughout his career he set about convincing his colleagues both locally and nationally of the importance of evaluating clinical need and treatment, as well as pushing for improvements to be learnt. This was taken on by the College and in the mid 1980s Walter led the College working party looking into clinical audit.

Teaching junior medical staff and medical students was very important to him. He helped set up and ran MRCP training and mock exams. So successful did this training become at the 'North Staffs' that excellent junior staff were always attracted to the centre - knowing how good their training would be within a busy clinical environment. The culmination of this work was when Walter was asked to arrange the first MRCP examination held in Stoke.

He set up endocrine meetings for consultants and junior staff from Birmingham and other regional hospitals. The Midland Endocrine Club was born and was the template for others to follow. Walter very much wanted a senior registrar in endocrinology linked with Birmingham and, through his hard work, this happened. When the postgraduate school of medicine was created in conjunction with the University of Keele, Walter was senior lecturer in endocrinology.

It was my good fortune to meet Walter van't Hoff for the first time at an endocrine meeting in Glasgow in 1971. It rained and I gave him a lift to the station. I did not realise the keen interest he took in me and my career would be the prelude to my applying for a post to join him at the North Staffs some months later. He proved to be a helpful, supportive and wise colleague.

When he retired this upright, slightly reserved but warm-hearted 'Englishman' was given a lovely and well deserved send off. A valedictory meeting was held for him, and so many of his former students wanted to present their current work based on their learning from their old boss, that it filled a whole day. Walter was so delighted to see them all.

From boyhood Walter had a lifelong interest and pleasure in sailing, and he and Rosemary sailed in their Sadler 32 - 'Caduceus'. He was a good skier, having been in the British Army ski team while doing his National Service with the British Army of the Rhine in 1948. He graduated into the Great Britain ski team in the 1949 season.

Throughout and into his retirement he was a very good photographer and loved music and opera. Sadly in the mid 1990s Walter developed deafness and ataxia, and at times this made him feel isolated. He had several fractures following falls, which he bore with great stoicism.

Walter is survived by his wife Rosemary, also a Fellow of the College, and by their three sons. One son is a consultant nephrologist at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, one has been in general practice but is now pursuing a career as an artist. And the youngest is in the world of business. He was very proud of his family.

Lionel Alexander

(Volume XI, page 593)

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