Lives of the fellows

Christopher William Clayson

b.11 September 1903 d.17 January 2005
CBE(1974) OBE(1966) MB ChB Edin(1926) DPH(1930) MD(1936) MRCP Edin(1948) FRCP Edin(1951) FRCP(1968) Hon FACP(1968) Hon FRACP(1969) Hon FRCPS Glasg(1970) Hon FRCGP(1971) Hon FRCP Edin(1990)

Christopher Clayson had two particular distinctions: he was the first consultant from a peripheral non-teaching hospital to become president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the first president to achieve his centenary. His career demonstrates the triumph of intelligence, talent and personality over the grim and life-threatening illness that afflicted him as a student and young doctor. During his final examination he began to cough up blood. Pulmonary tuberculosis was diagnosed, resulting in two years at Southfield Sanatorium under the care of Sir Robert Philip [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.332]. In the later stages his physical rehabilitation with manual gardening was converted into re-studying medicine in the library and laboratory. Later Philip made him resident at the sanatorium and then sent him to work under Edouard Rist [Munk's Roll, Vol. V, p.347] at the Laennec Hospital in Paris. In 1929 he obtained the diploma in public health and in 1933 Philip appointed him as assistant physician at Southfield and lecturer in the university tuberculosis department.

For five years after Philip's death in 1939, with the heavy burdens of wartime, Clayson, together with J C Simpson, carried both the clinical and the heavy teaching burden of the university department as no professor had yet been appointed to succeed Philip. Then, in 1944, the medical superintendentship of Lochmaben Sanatorium became unexpectedly vacant and Clayson was appointed.

The sanatorium served four local authority areas and the job was very busy and demanding. Here Clayson showed all his organizing and diplomatic skills in tactfully steering the joint local authority board towards steadily improving the service. With the introduction of the NHS in 1948 he developed out-patient clinics at Lochmaben, Dumfries, Newton Stewart and Stranraer 85 miles away.

Later, Clayson took full advantage of the revolution in chemotherapy then evolving, so successfully indeed that by the time he retired in 1968 a former bed-load of 172 for tuberculosis, at its peak in 1955, had been reduced to six. Most remaining patients were being treated at home or at work. As the heavy burden of tuberculosis declined, he launched, with the Medical Research Council, one of the earliest local community health surveys, covering not only tuberculosis but also chronic bronchitis, heart disease and hypertension. This was one of the first projects which successfully defined morbidity in a local population.

He also began to devote increasing time to the medical politics of the NHS, not just battling for better conditions for doctors, but primarily seeking to give better service to patients and public. He soon demonstrated both his skills as a negotiator and his outstanding gifts as a speaker. These rapidly made him well known throughout Scotland, and later nationally in the UK. As a result he became probably the first non-teaching hospital consultant to be elected to the council of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. There his ability, charm, and good judgement soon made its mark. It was a measure of the fellows' admiration, affection and confidence that in 1966 he was elected with acclamation as president. It was at a period when the College was facing complex challenges in the developing reform of post-graduate education. As president he was largely responsible for the rapidly rising prestige of the College among politicians and administrators, and of course among his own profession.

On his retirement from the presidency, after a most distinguished term of office, it was a measure of his national standing that the Secretary of State asked him to be the first chairman of the Scottish Council for Postgraduate Medical Education, a project which Christopher, as president, had been largely responsible for initiating. Thereafter the Secretary of State further invited him to chair a commission on the alcohol licensing laws in Scotland - a very tricky and sensitive assignment, both socially and politically. Christopher carried out this task with great skill. For years afterwards he was involved in much writing and speaking on the subject all over the country. Indeed, even in his eighties, he was still being asked to write or lecture on various subjects.

Clayson achieved important academic, national and international distinctions. He obtained the MD with a gold medal in 1936 for a thesis on seasonal incidence of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and the Royal College of General Practitioners, as well as of the American and Australasian Colleges of Physicians. He was awarded an OBE in 1966 and a CBE in 1974.

In spite of his early illnesses Clayson seemed to be perennially young. To celebrate his 90th birthday in 1993, five ex-presidents of the College and their wives gave a dinner for Christopher and his wife. It was a measure of his permanent youth that he himself drove up from Lochmaben to Edinburgh and that he gave a charming and witty after-dinner speech, as usual without notes. To celebrate his 100th birthday in September 2003, as by that time he would have found the journey from Lochmaben to Edinburgh too exacting, the then president, Neil Finlayson, took a group of former presidents and their wives to Lochmaben for a celebratory lunch in honour of Christopher and his wife. Christopher made a charming reply to the president's speech, as ever without notes.

In the following year he died quietly after an operation for hip fracture. Following his first wife's death, some years later he made a very happy second marriage. They had no children.

John Crofton

[Brit.med.J.,2005,330,734;Proc.R.Coll.Physicians Edinb.1993;23:545-557]

(Volume XII, page web)

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