Lives of the fellows

James (Sir) Watt

b.19 August 1914 d.28 December 2009
KBE(1975) C St J(1972) MB BS Durh(1938) MS(1949) FRCS(1955) FICS(1963) MD Newcastle(1972) FRCP(1975) Hon FRCS Edin(1976) Hon DCh(1978)

Sir James Watt was medical director general of the Royal Navy and a dedicated surgeon whose commitment to medicine was reinforced by his wartime experience of disasters at sea.

Born in Morpeth, he was the son of Thomas, a businessman and his wife Sarah, who was a teacher. His father was a distant relative of the engineer James Watt. One of his great grandfathers had been married to a descendant of John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. Educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Morpeth, he studied medicine at Durham University and the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) in Newcastle upon Tyne. Qualifying in 1938, he did house jobs at Ashington Hospital, Northumberland, followed by Princess Mary's Maternity Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne.

When the Second World War broke out, he joined the Royal Navy (RN) and, from January 1941 to September 1942, he was surgeon lieutenant commander on the cruiser HMS Emerald in the Far East, up to the fall of Singapore. Among other emergencies, he had to deal with an outbreak of malaria affecting 70 of the crew and a serious collision with another naval vessel in which 14 were either killed or missing. His next posting was on North Atlantic convoy duty, serving on the destroyer, Roxborough. On one occasion, in a bad storm, both the captain and first lieutenant were washed overboard and Watt assumed command, also continuing to treat the wounded. He saw further service on convoys before being posted to the Far East on the escort carrier Arbiter and continuing to serve some time after VJ day treating malnourished ex-prisoners of war and civilians en route from Hong Kong to Australia.

He returned to the RVI after the war but received an unexpected message that the Navy wanted him to serve again. Although, on examination, this request turned out to be the result of an administrative error, Watt took it as a sign from God that he should re-enlist. Having rejoined in 1949, he was posted to the hospital ship Maine during the Korean War and his career progressed rapidly. He served as a surgical specialist in Hong Kong from 1953 to 1955. In 1956 he was promoted to a consultant in surgery and worked at the naval hospitals in Plymouth, Haslar and Malta for 10 years. Following this he was appointed the first joint professor of naval surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the RN Hospital at Haslar with the rank of surgeon captain.

In 1969 he was appointed dean of naval medicine and medical officer in charge of the Institute of Naval Medicine, and promoted to surgeon rear admiral. While there he endeavoured to develop the institute into a first class centre for research. Three years later he became medical director general of the Navy, as surgeon vice admiral, and commenced to reorganise the naval medical service in the five years before he retired in 1977. Serving as the Queen’s honorary surgeon from 1969 to 1977, he was appointed Commander of the Order of St John in 1972 and KBE in 1975.

A member of numerous societies and associations, including the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, he was also a fellow of the Medical Society of London and its president for a year in 1980. He gave the Lettsomian lectures in 1979 and was elected a trustee. In order to secure the future of the Society, he organised the sale of many of their valuable books to the Wellcome and, a rare honour, was made an honorary fellow in 2009. In 1978 he was made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Barbers, and was president of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) from 1982 to 1984, presiding over its major rebuilding programme for which he was made an honorary fellow in 1998. It was also during his presidency that the Prince of Wales outraged the medical profession in a speech to the British Medical Association in which he stated that doctors were ignoring older and more traditional forms of healing. Watt sought to ameliorate the situation by hosting a series of colloquia on the subject of complementary therapies at the RSM.

His Christian belief was central to his life. While at Haslar in the late 1940s he had founded a Christian fellowship for Bible study and prayer and continued to do this wherever he was posted. Eventually these groups came together as the United Christian Naval Fellowship (UCNF) and this joined with the Royal Naval Christian Union to become, what is now, the Naval Christian Fellowship. A keen supporter of local church activities, he was also president of the Royal Naval Lay Readers Society from 1974 to 1983, the Institute of Religion and Medicine from 1989 to 1991 and ECHO International Health Services (which provides drugs and healthcare to sub-Saharan Africa) from 1983 to 2003. Among his writings on the topic, he published What is wrong with Christian healing? (London, Churches’ Council for Health and Healing, 1993) and The church, medicine and the New Age (now available as an ebook at In his view the UK probably needed a Wesleyan revival.

A prolific writer, he published over a hundred scientific papers on the management of burns, peptic ulcers, hyperbolic oxygen therapy for gas gangrene, cytotoxic agents in surgery and delayed wound closure. He also wrote on aspects of nautical history and did much research in later life on the health of Admiral Lord Nelson and was an expert on Captain Cook. His research on Nelson, the result of numerous trips to libraries in Paris, produced a lecture on surgery at the battle of Trafalgar which was given to the Worshipful Company of Barbers in 2005 when he was nearing 90 years old. It was later published as ‘Surgery at Trafalgar’ (The Mariner’s Mirror, 2005, 91, 266-83). He edited and contributed to four books including jointly with E J Freeman and W F Bynum Starving sailors: the influence of nutrition upon naval and maritime history. (London, Maritime Museum, 1981) and Talking health: conventional and complimentary approaches (London, Royal Society of Medicine, 1988).

In his spare time he loved mountain walking and listening to classical music. He was a convivial host and an excellent cook. In his youth he had played tennis and rugby with such enthusiasm that he suffered severe injury.

Immediatly before his death he had been studying the plans for a redevelopment of the former Naval Hospital at Haslar where he had been professor in the late 1960s. Unmarried, he died 10 days after being admitted to hospital following a minor stroke.

RCP editor

[The Independent - accessed 17 April 2015; The Telegraph - accessed 17 April 2015; Royal College of Surgeons of England Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows Online]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List