Lives of the fellows

Walter Laing Macdonald (Lord Perry of Walton) Perry

b.16 June 1921 d.18 July 2003
MB ChB St Andrews(1943) MD(1948) OBE(1957) DSc(1958) FRSE(1960) MRCP Edin(1963) FRCP Edin(1967) Hon DSc Bradford(1974) Kt(1974) FRCP(1978) Hon DHL Maryland(1978) DUniv Athabasca(1979) DUniv Stirling(1980) DUniv Open(1981) Hon DLitt Deakin(1981) Hon DHL State University New York(1982) FRS(1985) Hon DLitt Andhra Pradesh Open University(1987) Hon DEd Victoria(1992)

Walter Perry was a distinguished pharmacologist who became the outstanding founding vice-chancellor of the Open University. He was born in Dundee and was educated at Dundee High School and the University of St Andrews, where he studied medicine. After serving as a house officer at the Dundee Royal Infirmary, he joined the Colonial Medical Service in Nigeria from 1944 to 1946. There, for about a year, he was the only doctor in a province the size of Scotland with a population of half a million. In that time he performed more than 500 major operations, as well as running the 120-bed hospital and making periodic visits to ten outlying dispensaries. After returning to England in 1946, he served as a medical officer in the RAF for two years.

In 1947 he was invited to join the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council, in which capacity he worked until 1952. He was appointed director of biological standards at the National Institute for Medical Research. The work of the Institute, under his guidance, came very much into the public arena with the development of the vaccine for poliomyelitis, and he was much involved in discussions over the relative merits of the vaccines on offer. In acknowledgement of this outstanding service he was awarded an OBE in 1957.

In 1958 he was appointed professor of pharmacology at the University of Edinburgh, an appointment he held for the next ten years. During those years, his research work included experimental confirmation of the role of acetylcholine in synaptic transmission at the parasympathetic ganglia, and he published profusely. He experimented with new teaching and learning methods, and concluded that distance learning could not rely simply on reading, but had to include the use of video recordings and other technology to take the place of lectures.

When, in the autumn of 1970, Harold Wilson's brainchild of a 'University of the Air' opened its doors to its first students as the Open University, Walter insisted that his role would be an educational and not an administrative one. He made it clear when appointed as vice-chancellor, a year earlier, that the Open University would not become a glorified extension of adult education, but would be a genuine university awarding properly recognised degrees. He set out to attract teaching staff of a calibre that would ensure that the university's brave aims were met. The idea was heavily criticised by many academics in the established universities and in the Conservative Party. It was said that Ian Mcleod, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Heath government, would have killed off the idea if he could, but that proved impossible on financial grounds. It is also said that Margaret Thatcher was initially a bitter opponent, but was subsequently converted when recognising the excellence of the work that the university did under Perry's tutelage.

Very soon, Perry had recruited an able academic staff, including 18 professors and an equal number of senior lecturers, all with secure tenure. His outstanding quality was his unorthodox pragmatism and his ability to improvise. His greatest achievement was to make distance learning work, a principle which was fundamental to the ethos of the new university. Critics of the principle underlying the establishment of the OU had always suggested that the pent-up demand for university education by those who had, for one reason or another, missed out on it, would be a small one. Perry and his planning committee disagreed, estimating that the pool of 'deprived' adults might be as large as a quarter of a million. The numbers of applications ranging from 35,000 to 50,000 a year in the first five years of the university's life were his vindication. What encouraged him was the relatively low average age of the applicants (around the mid-twenties), indicating that most of them saw an OU degree not as a hobby of old age, but as a chance to rectify deficiencies in their education.

Typical of Perry's determination was his approach to erecting new buildings on the Walton Hall Campus at Milton Keynes, to house academic staff and administrative services. When, in the case of the second building, approval by the then Department of Education was still uncertain and there was a worldwide steel shortage, Perry went ahead and ordered £100,000 worth of steel himself. In the end, government approval came, but it was a common joke among Perry's colleagues, that, even had it not been, the shrewd Scot had bought on a rising market and could have cleaned up with a handsome profit.

Perry retired as vice-chancellor in 1981 with the OU soundly established at the heart of educational life. He was knighted in 1974 and in 1979 he was made a life peer. Although by then 70 years of age, he threw himself energetically into public life, not least in the House of Lords where for two years, from 1981 to 1983, he was deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party, and again held that post from 1988 to 1989. He chaired the standing committee on continuing education of the University Grants Committee and the National Advisory Body for Public Sector Higher Education from 1985 to 1989. He also served the Research Defence Society, first as a member, then chairman and finally as president, over a period of over 40 years.

He was a tireless defender of the work of Huntingdon Life Sciences, and delighted in confronting anti-vivisectionists by asking them whether, if they or one of their family were seriously ill, they would be prepared to benefit from the results of research which could not possibly have been carried out without the use of animals. He attended every debate and committee meeting at the Lords that was relevant to animal research and took every opportunity to argue the case.

Perry received honorary degrees from universities around the world, and his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1985 acknowledged the contribution that his vice-chancellorship of the OU had made to the expansion of scientific teaching at home and abroad, and to his earlier pharmacological research. He was also prominent in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, being awarded that Society's Royal medal in 2000.

In the House of Lords, he chose his contributions to debates carefully, concentrating especially on science, education and health and social issues. He was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology from 1985 to 1990 and from 1992 to 2001, making important contributions to the range of reports that built up the good reputation of that committee. He chaired the sub-committee set up in order to examine the medical uses of cannabis; in 1998 its report recommended that doctors should be allowed to prescribe a pure preparation of cannabis administered by inhalation, in the treatment of conditions such as multiple sclerosis. I was happy to have served alongside him during the course of that enquiry and many others, and developed not only a great affection for this thoughtful, softly-spoken and charming man, but I also recognised his formidable intellect and his shrewd attitude to the understanding and analysis of difficult problems.

He was a man who loved good company, wine and food, and also delighted in golf, though in the last two years before he died, he confessed to me that, because of increasing back pain and other arthritic problems, he was only able to play a few holes, usually on a buggy. Nevertheless, he worked right up until the time of his death, still travelling weekly between London and Scotland, and staying invariably at the Royal Society, of which he was so proud to be a fellow. An outstanding research and clinical scientist and administrative and educational leader, he was also a good friend to many. He was twice married, first in 1946 to Anne Elizabeth Grant. That marriage was dissolved in 1971, and he married in that year Catherine Hilda Crawley, who survives him. He is also survived by their two sons and one daughter and by the three sons of his first marriage.

John Walton (Lord Walton of Detchant)

[The Daily Telegraph 19 July 2003; The Times 19 July 2003; Research Defence Society Newsletter Sept 2003]

(Volume XI, page 447)

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