Lives of the fellows

James Maxwell Glover Wilson

b.31 August 1913 d.31 December 2006
MRCS LRCP(1937) MB BChir Cantab(1938) MRCP(1947) FRCP(1966) FFPHM(1972) FRCP Edin(1981)

Maxwell Wilson is best known for his pioneering analysis and exposition of the principles, methods and requirements of screening for disease which was published, together with Gunnar Jungner, by WHO in 1968. This was done while he was a principal medical officer at the Ministry of Health, which he joined in 1957 after a distinguished career in clinical medicine in England, Scotland and India.

Maxwell (or ‘Max’ as he was often known) was born in Edinburgh whilst his father, James Thomas Wilson, professor of anatomy at Sydney University, was on a sabbatical there. Until 1920 Max lived in Sydney, but then moved to Cambridge, where his father had been invited to become professor of anatomy. Max went to King’s College Choir School and then Oundle, where he studied science and classics. He went on to Cambridge and then UCH. Like some contemporaries of that era he wanted to go to Spain to fight in the Civil War, but was dissuaded by his father from doing this. Instead he joined the Territorial Army (Westminster Dragoons). He was a houseman at UCH to the professorial medical unit and then to the paediatric department.

At the onset of the Second World War he was first sent to an anti-aircraft unit in Potters Bar, and then served in a military hospital in Inugu, Nigeria. During this time he was sent to America. On his return he joined the 6th Airborne Division and just after midnight on D Day was dropped (accurately) near the River Orne and set up a medical centre at Renville. On returning to England he was posted to the 224 Field Ambulance. This was followed by trips to America and India, eventually ending up in Foxton near Culverthorpe, in Lincolnshire, where he met his future wife, Lallie.

On demobilisation he returned to UCH as a temporary registrar to the medical unit (under Harold Himsworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.238]. Unfortunately he had a recurrence of tuberculosis (probably first contracted in Nigeria) and was sent to Davos, Switzerland, to the sanatorium described by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain. As he was not very ill he was taken onto the sanatorium staff, which helped his finances.

On return from Davos he worked, for five years, in the professorial department of medicine at the Western General in Edinburgh as senior registrar, clinical tutor and temporary lecturer with Stanley Davidson, Dick Turner, Wilfred Card [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.76] and Ted French [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.210]. At the end of the five-year appointment he took a job as medical superintendent to 13 tea gardens in Assam, India, each of which had its own hospital. While in India he met a former Swedish chief medical officer (Axel Hojer), who persuaded him to take up a career in public health.

Max returned from India in 1957 and took up the post of senior medical officer (later principal) at the Ministry (later renamed Department) of Health. He remained in the department until 1976. It is during this period that Max really influenced medicine and health policy in the UK. Although he had published an important paper on alcaptonuria, in 1946, with Albert Neuberger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.362] and Rimington, he continued to publish important scientific articles on blood pressure, the effect of weather on disease and most importantly on screening. Sir George Godber (the chief medical officer) at the time recognised his interest in health research and, together with R H L Cohen (deputy chief medical officer), he started to promote research through the foundation of the chief scientists office. Dick Cohen, followed by Sir Douglas Black [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.62], were the chief scientists, while Max provided the managerial and administrative support to this pioneering endeavour. He was responsible for encouraging many young medical researchers to become interested in health services research and to provide the necessary resources. Although he was offered the post of deputy chief medical officer in 1976, he became disillusioned with the department and took up a research post with his old friend Mike Heasman in the Common Services Agency in Edinburgh.

After retirement in 1978, he continued to lead a very active life with his wife, Lallie, in Musselburgh. He continued to take part in scientific activities, particularly on screening, and publishing. But his main interests were local. He became secretary of the local Conservation Society and took up bread making. He and Lallie revisited Australia on several occasions, as well as France, Turkey and Spain, and walked in the Scottish Highlands, where they had a small cottage. He was also able to indulge more in one of his passions - fishing. His ashes will be sent down the River Avon, where he spent many hours fishing. Max was a very gentle, caring man. His true contributions and work were often not sufficiently appreciated because of his retiring nature. His wife, Lallie, three sons (Andrew Thomas, Stephen Maxwell and Philip Julian) and friends miss him.

Walter Holland

(Volume XII, page web)

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