Lives of the fellows

Walter Beck

b.10 May 1926 d.8 August 2011
BSc Stellenbosch(1945) MB ChB Cape Town(1951) MSc(1951) MMed(1956) MRCP(1958) FACC(1969) FRCP(1972)

Walter (‘Wally’) Beck was a pioneering South African cardiologist and a gifted teacher, both at the bedside and in the cardiac catherisation laboratory. He was born in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province of South Africa, the son of Frederick Elliot Lockhart Beck, a general practitioner, and Elizabeth Findlay Beck née Bisset, the daughter of a farmer. He attended Stellenbosch Boys’ High School and then Stellenbosch University, where he graduated with a BSc. He went on to study medicine in Cape Town and qualified in 1951.

He held junior appointments at Groote Schuur Hospital, and was then a registrar in cardiology at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. From 1958 he held a two-year fellowship in physiology at the Mayo Clinic, USA. He then returned to Groote Schuur, to the cardiac department, where he spent the rest of his clinical and research career. He retired in 1986.

His career in bedside and investigative cardiology led to a series of excellent studies and publications in major international journals related to cardiovascular medicine. His mentor and close colleague throughout his working years was Velva Schrire, founding professor of cardiology at the University of Cape Town. In the weeks preceding his death from pancreatic cancer, Schrire indicated to Beck that he expected him to continue the tradition of excellence in the cardiology department at Cape Town. Thus anointed, Wally Beck succeeded to the chair of cardiology in Cape Town in 1972, an appointment that he held with unfailing distinction. His superb clinical skills and encyclopaedic knowledge were constantly applied at Groote Schuur Hospital, which quickly became the major reference centre for cardiology, specifically congenital heart disease, in South Africa. A substantial number of Beck’s publications had to do with the haemodynamics and surgical correction of congenital heart anomalies. His colleague Pat Commerford described him as: ‘one of the last master cardiologists completely comfortable with the evaluation of congenital and acquired heart disease’.

Together with Velva Schrire, Wally Beck also studied and published on rheumatic heart disease and also constrictive pericarditis, disorders of considerable significance in sub-saharan Africa. Wally Beck was at the forefront of cardiology when Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful human heart transplantation in 1967. He was closely involved in the assessment of the first heart transplant recipients and wrote seminal papers on heart transplantation.

In his latter years he lived in a leafy suburb in a massive Victorian house in the district of Oranjezicht in Cape Town, which had enough garages to house his collection of vintage motor cars. He also collected and had displayed in his home rare pieces of Chinese porcelain and antique Cape Dutch furniture made of stinkwood and yellowwood.

He was a generous host to his trainees and friends, young and old, from all walks of life. He never married. For most of his years he was cared for by a housekeeper, Angeline Prins, who attended to his every need throughout the many years (33 in all) that she served him. In appreciation of the care that Mrs Prins provided him, Wally Beck bought her a house and also willed her a substantial sum of money in addition to an annuity. Wally Beck lived an isolated life in his latter post-retirement years. He died of complications of Parkinson’s disease in the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital.

Krishna Somers

[The South African Medical Journal Vol 101, No 12 (2011) In Memoriam – accessed 12 August 2013]

(Volume XII, page web)

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