Lives of the fellows

James Wylie Beattie

b.21 February 1918 d.21 November 2008
MB BCh BAO Belfast(1941) MD(1945) FRCP(1975)

Wylie Beattie was the first consultant geriatrician appointed in Norfolk, and indeed the whole of East Anglia. An Ulsterman with a distinguished scholarship record at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Queen’s University, Belfast, he qualified in 1941 and did house appointments in that city. He then moved to the mainland for further posts in Scotland and trained in academic medicine in Sheffield and Cardiff, publishing a number of papers during that period.

With the great competition for consultant general physician posts in the Britain during the early 1950s, he moved into the then unpopular specialty of geriatrics, being subsequently appointed to Norwich in 1955.

His clinical facilities on arrival were poor, with his patients housed in what was little better than the 1917 workhouse accommodation of the old Norwich Infirmary days. The by then re-named West Norwich Hospital had replaced the previous Woodlands Hospital, managed by the Norwich City Corporation from 1941 to the inception of the NHS in 1948. In addition to his 140 beds in Norwich, he also had a wide remit across east Norfolk, with another 206 beds in Northgate Hospital, Great Yarmouth. In the latter setting his work was encouraged and supported by the Norwich physician/cardiologist Bill Oliver [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.435].

Ably assisted by his senior registrar John Simpson, Wylie energetically set about converting a largely custodial ‘chronic sick’ service into an active diagnostic and rehabilitative one. Despite resistance, he cut bed numbers to reduce over-crowding and admissions increased dramatically (almost five-fold by 1959), aided also by the opening of the new Whitlingham Hospital at Trowse in 1956. He was an early enthusiast for physiotherapy in patient recovery, so much so that Norwich was an early pioneering centre for this work. Fighting his corner hard when finances in the NHS were strained, he successfully established ward day-rooms and long overdue bathroom and toilet facility developments, along with many other areas now taken for granted.

As the 1960s and 1970s wore on, with ever-increasing demand for inpatient care of rapidly growing numbers of the retired population, he was faced by severe problems of inadequate bed numbers and limited supporting medical manpower, despite the appointment of a second consultant colleague J C S Adams in 1965. A third consultant post, in a separate sectorised north Norfolk service, was created in 1973, with a fourth in 1978 and a fifth in 1985. With the last a full unified district service was established across the United Norwich Hospitals, just two years after his own retirement in 1983.

It was inevitable that in his pursuit of excellence and specialty recognition he made enemies, but his single-minded approach resulted in others being able, later on, to take the discipline of geriatric medicine further to the benefit of patients. He laid very solid foundations for 21st century developments in his specialty, which now, with the advent of a medical school at the University of East Anglia in 2002, is provided by 13 consultants, including a professorial academic unit.

He married Mary née Williams, whom he met in Wales. They had no children and after she predeceased him in 1997 he led a quiet life and had little contact with medical activities.

Brian Payne

[Brit.med.J., 2009,338,117; Eastern Daily Press 16 December 2008]

(Volume XII, page web)

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