Lives of the fellows

Patrick David Wall

b.5 April 1925 d.8 August 2001
BM BCh Oxon(1948) DM(1960) FRCP(1984) MD Siena(1987) FRS(1989)

Patrick David Wall, known as ‘Pat’, was an eminent neuroscientist and a leading expert on pain. He is best known for his ‘gate control theory of pain’, which he developed with his long-term collaborator, the Canadian psychologist Rob Melzack. Pat was born in Nottingham, the son of Thomas Wall, director of education for Middlesex, and Ruth née Cresswell. He was educated at St Paul’s School, and then went on to study medicine at Christ Church, Oxford, continuing his clinical studies at Middlesex Hospital. Whilst still a student he developed a keen interest in the nervous system and wrote the first of his many scientific papers.

After graduating in 1948, he went to the US. He was an instructor at Yale for two years, where he developed new techniques for recording impulses from single nerve cells within the brains of monkeys. He was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago from 1950 to 1953, and was then an instructor at Harvard. In 1955, he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an associate professor, becoming a professor in 1960.

It was at MIT that he first met and began to collaborate with Ron Melzack. In 1962 they outlined their gate control theory of pain, publishing in Brain (June 85:331-56). They later expanded and refined their ideas in a classic article published in Science in 1965 (‘Pain mechanisms: a new theory’ Nov 19; 150[699]:971-9). Their theory proposed that a ‘gate’ mechanism in the spinal cord determines whether messages from nerve fibres will be interpreted as pain. Their work led directly to the development of TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) devices used to ease pain.

In 1967 he returned to the UK, to University College, London, to take up a chair in the anatomy department. He retired in 1990, but continued his research in the physiology department at St Thomas’ Hospital. From 1973 he also held an appointment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During this period he widened his research, specifically focusing on the study of nerve damage.

He was the first editor-in-chief of the journal Pain, the premier publication in the field, founded in 1975, and was co-editor with Ron Melzack of the definitive Textbook of pain (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1984 [with subsequent editions]). He wrote more than 400 articles in scientific journals. His last book, Pain: the science of suffering (London, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1999), was written when he himself was suffering from advanced cancer.

He received many honours. In 1988 he was awarded the Sherrington medal of the Royal Society of Medicine. A year later he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society and gained the Royal medal in 1999.

He was a lifelong left-winger and a supporter of good causes. As a student he was chairman of the Oxford University Socialist Club. He also founded the British Medical Students’ Journal, which backed the introduction of the National Health Service. He later campaigned against the British Army’s treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland and supported Dame Cicely Saunders [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] in her development of the hospice movement.

He was married three times. His first wife was Betty Tucker, an artist and poet. They divorced in 1973. In 1976 he married again, to Vera Ronnen née Bischitz. This marriage also ended in divorce. In 1999 he married Mary McLennan Helton née Windsor, a music promoter, who survived him. He had no children.

RCP editor

[The Times 15 August 2001; The Guardian 16 August 2001; The Independent 18 August 2001; The Daily Telegraph 23 August 2001; BMJ 2001 323 636; Alex May ‘Wall, Patrick David (1925-2001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan 2005; online edn, Oct 2008 (www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/76148); International Association for the Study of Pain: in memoriam: Patrick D Wall (www.iasp-pain.org)]

(Volume XII, page web)

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