Lives of the fellows

Ewart Geoffrey Walsh

b.25 November 1922 d.26 March 2003
BA Oxon(1943) BM BCh(1947) MA BSc(1947) MD Harvard(1947) DTM&H Liverp(1948) MRCP(1950) FRSE(1959) MRCP Edin(1966) FRCP(1967) FRCP Edin(1968)

Geoffrey Walsh was a neurophysiologist who spent his entire working life in Edinburgh. He was born in Cheltenham and attended the grammar school there. A scholarship took him to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied medicine. He won several undergraduate prizes and graduated with first class honours in animal physiology in 1943. He then spent two years as a Rockefeller student at Harvard, where he gained an MD and won the Soma Weiss prize, before returning to Oxford to graduate MA, BSc, BM BCh in 1947.

After two years of clinical appointments (including a brief spell as a ship's doctor), he qualified MRCP in 1950. In the following year he joined David Whitteridge [Munk's Roll, Vol. X, p.514], who had recently been appointed to the chair of physiology at the University of Edinburgh, as a lecturer in that department. Although this was a move away from clinical medicine he was also a part-time electro-encephalographer at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary for a few years until his promotion to senior lecturer in physiology in 1957, when he became a honorary consultant clinical neurophysiologist. Geoff remained in the department of physiology until his retirement in 1990, and his abilities were recognised by a readership conferred in 1967.

He had a lifelong interest in the sensory nervous system and the control of movement and posture. His research had two key characteristics. The first was an original experimental approach. Geoff loved making measurements of body and limb motion and the ways that the nervous system controlled and responded to movement. Most of these studies were conducted in human subjects using highly ingenious and completely original techniques. The apparatus was usually home-made and the long-suffering subjects either students or colleagues. The second characteristic was a great academic breadth. Geoff was a man of often astonishing knowledge on a wide range of subjects. Some flavour of both of these characteristics is evident in his two books The physiology of the nervous system (London, Longmans, 1957, second edition 1964) and Muscles, masses and motion: the physiology of normality, hypotonicity, spasticity and rigidity (MacKeith Press, 1992). In addition to his books he was the author of approximately 60 original papers and a great number of abstracts and popular works. His final paper was accepted for publication just days before his death.

He collaborated widely with many clinical and non-clinical colleagues. His work had a considerable influence on human neurophysiology and some of his original work on tremor is still regularly cited nearly 50 years after publication. He was a very active member of the Physiological Society and served both on the editorial board of the Journal of Physiology (1965 to 1972) and on the Society's committee (1983 to 1986). His continuing clinical interests were reflected in his appointment to the editorial board of Paraplegia (1985 to 1991) and an appointment as an honorary neurophysiological specialist at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh (1991).

His industry, intelligence and enthusiasm were formidable. He avoided circumlocution, and had an unblinking gaze and rather immobile static posture (reptilian was his own description of it). Behind this daunting facade there was a modest and very sincere man who was a delightful and generous colleague, collaborator and companion. He might sometimes seem iconoclastic and unselfconscious, but this apparent insensitivity masked a remarkably astute and perceptive mind. He was a very 'full' man, with many academic and non-academic interests. He was a radio amateur and a skilled constructor of electronic equipment. He built a small car powered by steam. Rather late in life he took up the flute and saxophone. He painted and drew, and travelled widely. He loved to write and to read and was a natural scholar. On retirement, dismayed by the likely loss of his research facilities, he had a laboratory built in his back garden where he pursued his research. His exceptional research activity in retirement led the University of Edinburgh medical faculty to renew repeatedly his post retirement honorary fellowship, which he still held at the time of his death, so he had an association with Edinburgh physiology which lasted for more than 50 years.

He once told me that he loved his job because he was paid for doing what he enjoyed most. That made him an amateur in the best sense of the word. His enthusiasm for life and his work was enormous. He was predeceased by his wife, Penny, whom he married in 1950, and by one of their four daughters.

Martin Lakie

[Brit med J 2003 327 346]

(Volume XII, page web)

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