Lives of the fellows

Walter Somerville

b.2 October 1913 d.20 July 2005
CBE(1982) MB BCh BAO NUI(1937) MD(1940) MRCP(1940) FRCP(1957)

Walter Somerville was one of the foremost clinical cardiologists of his generation, a leader in British cardiology and the Cardiac Society, and a man of wide interests outside medicine. The son of a property owner, he was born into a Roman Catholic family in Clontarf, just outside Dublin, and educated at the Jesuit Belvedere College. He qualified from the Mater Hospital and, after house appointments there, moved to the Grosvenor Sanatorium in Kent to study for his membership of the College. He was to take up a registrar appointment at St Mary's Hospital, London, when war was declared.

Against the advice of some of his friends he volunteered for pilot training in the RAF, but was sent on a troopship to India. He was quickly recalled to serve in the chemical warfare department at Porton Down and in 1942 he was seconded to the Canadian Department of National Defence, and in 1943 to the US War Department. His unit was prepared for a mission in Japan from which it was not expected to return, but fortunately the war ended. He was demobilised with the rank of lieutenant colonel and awarded the Legion of Merit, USA. Two years further training in the United States under the GI bill were spent largely in Boston, where he met many of the brightest young American doctors who became lifelong friends.

Shortly after returning to London, he attended a lecture by Paul Wood [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.456] at Hammersmith Hospital. Afterwards he asked the only question and it so impressed Wood that he invited him to become his assistant. Thus began a long, close friendship and Walter looked after Wood in his last illness. He was appointed consultant cardiologist at Harefield Hospital in 1952 and at the Middlesex Hospital in 1954.

In 1957 he married Jane Platnauer, a cardiologist in her own right, and was immensely proud of her and their four children. The Somervilles were generous hosts and brought together in their home young cardiologists and leaders of the profession. They supported their friends loyally in times of trouble.

Walter was a man of integrity, always immaculately dressed, unhurried and in control. From his early days he had a great presence and was approached for training as a film star when he was in the US. His outstanding clinical skills were supplemented by the ability to explain things to patients and their relatives at all levels of society in simple words that they could understand and to support them in difficult times. Soon after his appointment at the Middlesex one of his grateful patients who ran a flower stall outside the hospital arranged for a carnation to be delivered twice a week to the front desk. This became his trademark and when the patient died her daughter continued the service for nearly 20 years.

His fame spread rapidly and he became consultant to the Army, the RAF and the Association of Naval Officers. He took up medico-legal work and excelled. He served as president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences. He gave his time generously to the Cardiac Society, being editor of the British Heart Journal for 20 years and president of the Society from 1976 to 1981. During his long service on council he oversaw a great expansion in the membership and influence of the Society and the early development of the affiliated groups. As president he negotiated a more favourable settlement with BMA publications, which helped to fund the purchase of the Society's headquarters in Fitzroy Square. Through his friends he forged closer links with the American and European societies. He represented British cardiology throughout the world and was honoured by cardiac societies overseas. He continued to take an active part in the British Cardiac Society's meetings until his middle eighties.

Retirement from the NHS and the completion of his presidency of the Cardiac Society left more time for private practice and he became quite fluent in Arabic. Prime Ministers and film stars, bankers and VIPs all over the world demanded his services.

Medicine and the Cardiac Society were only parts of his life. He was very well read, he played the piano, he enjoyed horse racing and rugby. He became an authority on fine wines and was treasurer of the Saintsbury Club, founded by André Simon. He enjoyed holidays overseas with his family. He delighted in the theatre and was a trustee of the British Association of Performing Arts. How could so much be packed into a day? It began at 6am and by 7.30 he was at his desk at BMA House, working on the British Heart Journal. At 10 he started a teaching round at the Middlesex Hospital and about 1pm he went to the London Clinic to have lunch and a glass of champagne with his colleagues before starting the afternoon's work. This would continue until the early evening and sometimes he would be called to the bedside of a patient who was seriously ill. Dinner, often at Claridges, would be followed by the theatre and, when he returned home late at night, he would deal with correspondence in his own fair hand before bringing his diary up to date.

Sadly, macular degeneration forced his retirement in the mid 1990s and he suffered a stroke, but continued to receive friends warmly and without self pity. In an age when bedside cardiology was supported, but had not been supplanted, by technology he was a master of the art as well as the science of medicine.

Malcolm Towers

[The Times 1 September 2005; The Guardian 17 September 2005; Brit.med.J.2005 331 639]

(Volume XII, page web)

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