Lives of the fellows

John Douglas Swales

b.19 October 1935 d.17 October 2000
MRCS LRCP(1960) MB BChir Cantab(1961) MRCP(1964) MD(1971) FRCP(1977) FMedSci(1998)

John Douglas Swales was foundation professor of medicine at the new medical school at the University of Leicester and an acknowledged authority on hypertension. He was born in Leicester and was educated at the local grammar school. His intellectual abilities were recognised early when he was awarded a major scholarship to study medicine at the University of Cambridge, from which he graduated with first class honours and the university prize. He completed his undergraduate medical education at Westminster Hospital Medical School, before embarking on a distinguished postgraduate medical career in London and Manchester, where Sir Douglas Black was his mentor.

In 1974, he was invited to become the foundation professor and chairman of medicine at the new medical school at the University of Leicester. It was a daunting challenge, to build an academic department of medicine from scratch, and one that John could readily have avoided by accepting one of the many comfortable established positions on offer elsewhere. That was not his style and with relish John accepted the challenge to help build a medical school in his hometown at Leicester. He served as chairman of medicine from 1974 until 1996 and during that time he guided his fledgling department from humble beginnings to one that became internationally respected, particularly in his beloved field of hypertension.

Among his many professional contributions, John was editor of Clinical Science, the founder editor of the Journal of Hypertension and editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. He also served on the editorial boards of many other journals, including Hypertension and The Lancet. He was also editor of the Textbook of hypertension (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1994), one of the most authoritative texts on the subjects. He was widely sought to debate on many issues related to hypertension, notably and entertainingly on the role of salt. He served on the council of the International Society of Hypertension and was a fellow of the American Council for High Blood Pressure Research and an honorary fellow of the Australian Blood Pressure Council. He helped form the British Hypertension Society and served as its second president.

John was a complex and cultured man with many interests beyond medicine. His great passion was classic literature and he was justifiably a respected authority on antiquarian books. His literary skills combined with the breadth and depth of his knowledge in hypertension was an unusual but glorious marriage. He wrote carefully and beautifully. His many contributions to the scientific literature are a testimony to these qualities. At the podium he was a star. He was a master of his brief and formidable but courteous in debate. His lectures were always engaging, incisive and laced with irony and humour. He was a magnificent speaker. In many ways, his analytical skills and his ability to communicate his thoughts with clarity defined the man. His contribution to the clinical science of hypertension was not so much marked by any one piece of work but more by his thinking and his rigour and the integrity of his analysis. He was an original thought leader. His appraisal of data, whether fresh from the laboratory or in a published work, was clever and definitive. In this regard, he was a brilliant journal editor, manuscript and grant reviewer and a much sought-after chairman. He held the view that so much of what we needed to know was already known and recorded in his beloved libraries. He felt that all too often in science there was an urgency to move on before the implications of previous work and published data had been fully evaluated, that time spent in the library reading original articles, a process of ‘re-searching’ in the true sense of the word, was more informative and more powerful than the latest gimmick or technique of the week. These principles were the basis of his ethos for mentoring and training scientists and clinicians. He firmly believed that good medical practice should be founded on a strong scientific understanding.

Few of his scientific colleagues would have been aware of his aforementioned passion for classic literature. Fewer still would have recognised his strong interest in Russia, its leaders, its culture and the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite the latter, he was not a religious man. Perhaps he was too sceptical and too analytical to be religious. He was, however, a private and spiritual man who was moved and inspired by the written word. He moved effortlessly and comfortably between the scientific arena into his cultured life outside medicine. His family was similarly protected from his academic life, although he talked often of his wife Dorothy, his son Philip (a doctor in Leceister) and his daughter Charlotte (a chartered accountant in London).

Those who did not know John no doubt viewed him as an imposing, serious and cultured man. He could be all of those, but more often he was very engaging and an entertaining raconteur with a wicked sense of humour. He was also very supportive of his colleagues and friends in a typically discrete way.

In 1996, John surprised us all when he accepted the invitation to become national director of the National Health Service Research and Development programme in London. He had the vision that he could energise the research ethos of one of the largest state health care programmes in the world. However, to his credit, John was no politician. The frustrations of being a master to political expediency and correctness were palpable. John quickly realised that his exciting and ambitious vision of R&D was very different to that of politicians. He retired after three years in the post and returned to Leicester as emeritus professor of medicine. It was a golden era in John’s life. He was visibly more relaxed and content. Unburdened by any administrative responsibility he lectured and wrote prolifically. He astonished us all by taking family holidays! He was looking forward to a very happy and productive phase in his life and his ever-present willingness to discuss research was enhanced by the unaccustomed commodity of time. How tragic that this should end so abruptly.

Medicine has lost a great ambassador. A man who was involved in, or at the forefront of so many key clinical and scientific developments in his field over three decades. Those of us who worked closely with him will miss his wisdom, subtle wit and scientific companionship. For those who only knew of him, read his written work to appreciate a master of his craft.

B Williams

(Volume XI, page 567)

<< Back to List