Lives of the fellows

Janet Mary Marks

b.23 August 1926 d.20 April 2008
BA Oxon BM BCh(1952) MRCP(1958) DM(1968) FRCP(1972)

Janet Marks was a consultant dermatologist at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, and a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle. She was born in Wilton, Wiltshire, and went to South Wilts Grammar School. There she distinguished herself, gaining a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she was a contemporary of Margaret Thatcher (whom she disliked long before the rest of us). Janet did her clinical studies at the Middlesex Hospital, London, capped by a BM BCh in 1952. She got the best of house jobs, at a time when there was great competition, including one with Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514], whom Janet much appreciated. Registrar jobs followed and, in 1958, the essential MRCP passport to a consultancy (with a little assistance, like many before and after, from Maurice Pappworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.373], the College’s bête noir).

In 1960 she found her home in dermatology, starting as a registrar to Stephen Gold at St George’s Hospital. From St George’s she went to the institute of dermatology, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, as a research assistant for a Medical Research Council funded study of the systemic effects of skin disease. She became a lecturer/senior registrar and later a senior lecturer/consultant.

This was a marvellous time: research in dermatology was opening up and Janet played a great part. She was wonderful to work with – comically critical, silently systematic and effortlessly efficient. She first researched the systemic effects of skin disease, then a new field, and on which she later wrote a monograph with her collaborators. Her biggest success was the discovery, together with Alec Watson and Sam Shuster, that ‘patients with dermatitis herpetiformis have an enteropathy indistinguishable from coeliac disease’.

Janet’s career grew and so did her academic trimmings, with a DM awarded in 1968 for hard work and her election to the Fellowship of the College in 1972. By then she had gained an international reputation and her considerable contribution was recognised by a nomination to give the prestigious Dowling oration in 1977, followed by the award of the Archibald Gray medal in 2002, the highest honour of British Association for Dermatology. But if research was Janet’s highlight, her clinical and teaching work were not far behind; she organised Newcastle’s psoriasis treatment unit and the undergraduate, GP and postgraduate teaching courses.

In person she seemed taller than she was because she was slim and held herself straight – as straight as she thought the inner person should be. She was always smartly and tastefully dressed, with perfect hair carefully maintained, spring-loaded by lacquer. Her index finger carried a gold ring she had herself designed to take a staggeringly large white sapphire (she never denied the rumour that it was a gift from an Indian prince). Her posh voice added to a slightly forbidding appearance, but neither was an affectation. Janet was always genuine, and her warmth soon became apparent, especially to her Geordie patients, who enjoyed her southern poshness and the way she ended her always thorough clinical examination with ‘put it away’, which, unsurprisingly, became a catch phrase in the department.

Janet had a sparkling humour, sometimes missed because of its splendid, deadpan dryness. It was an important part of her always clear and perfectly enunciated talks and lectures. And this humour remained, despite a recurrent pulmonary infection. How well she coped with this was a constant source of admiration, indeed, she was always even-tempered, despite the increasingly frequent episodes of ill-health. The only exception was her entertaining verbal fury with equally idiosyncratic drivers.

Outside medicine, she was a supreme cook and hostess. Her apartment was always spare and tasteful, with much evidence of her interest in Japanese and Chinese art; she was a perfectionist in all things. She had several boyfriends, but never married. Her great love was travel and she claimed to have visited every country in the world except China, a defect she was sadly unable to rectify. But she always returned to Newcastle, and it was touching to see how this southerner had adopted, and been adopted by, the north east. It became her home, and she was as proud of this as the Geordies were of her.

Sam Shuster

[Brit.med.J.,2008 337 1462]

(Volume XII, page web)

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