Lives of the fellows

Walter James Walkden

b.14 February 1922 d.18 April 2012
MB ChB Birm(1944) MRCP(1950) FRCP(1973)

Walter James Walkden was a consultant physician and gerontologist based in West Bromwich, a town later incorporated into the district of Sandwell following the local authority reorganisation of 1974. His father Walter Walkden was a school teacher in Birmingham; his mother, Amy Walken née Lee, was descended from a farming family. He attended King Edward’s School and subsequently qualified in medicine at Birmingham University in 1944.

After a house officer post at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, he served in the British Army from 1945 to 1948, in India. Whilst there he seemingly developed an enduring taste for a particular brand of Indian tea – he continued to import this for personal use, by the tea-chest-full.

In 1950 he was appointed as a senior registrar at the two main hospitals in West Bromwich, and ultimately became a consultant physician in 1955, alongside Denis Richards [Munk’s Roll, Vol. XI, p.479], also with responsibility for providing a geriatric service. The West Bromwich group of hospitals consisted of the West Bromwich District Hospital, a former voluntary hospital providing acute and casualty services and situated in the centre of town, and the Hallam Hospital, a former workhouse, situated about one mile away which provided general acute services, including paediatrics and obstetrics and gynaecology.

W J Walkden was known by all staff as ‘Wal’ – but the appellation was only used to his face by his consultant colleagues. Wal was a truly remarkable character whose commitment to his medical duties was almost saintly. He would, however, shudder and dismiss any suggestions along these lines. When I started in West Bromwich in 1971 as a third and additional appointment in general medicine, he was already doing a 50 per cent share of medical admissions. In addition, he looked after some 200 geriatric patients in four different units. One of these units was part of the Hallam Hospital complex, another was at the nearby Health Lane Hospital, but the others were quite distant at Moxley (Walsall) and Stallings Lane (Dudley). He worked a six or seven day week. In 16 years I only knew him to take a few days off when he had his varicose veins treated surgically. On an irregular basis he took off a portion of some Fridays when in his later years consultant staffing increased. In 1980 the two main hospitals were replaced by a new district hospital (Sandwell District General Hospital) on the Hallam site. Only in 1981 did we increase the number of physicians further.

Wal was single and lived on the premises at Hallam Hospital; his flat was above the gatehouse. Wal’s manner was always formal, like a P G Woodhouse character, and not surprisingly he always addressed his colleagues by their surname. One characteristic was that he always wrote in green ink – with a neat-looking but indecipherable hand. For this characteristic and other foibles he was affectionately lampooned in Christmas shows.

Wal carried out the same range of duties as his other two colleagues in the acute sector, but in addition he spent many hours besides during the day, the evenings and at weekends, doing ward rounds in the various geriatric units and assessing elderly patients in their homes. His hug, beam and kindly words were a special feature of his approach to elderly patients. He was always prepared to deputise for on call duties and I had cause to be grateful on many occasions when he stood in for me while I attended football matches. He continued in much the same vein until his retirement in 1987, though he had some relief of commitments with the appointment of full-time geriatrician colleagues in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was characteristic that he did not want a retirement dinner – just a pot of tea with a few colleagues in one of our offices. No-one could have given more time, effort and commitment to the people of Sandwell than ‘Wal’.

He was a highly intelligent individual and he devoted all his energies to serving. His only known relaxations were listening to recordings of classical music and developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of steam railway engines.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was appointed as the consultant member of the local district health authority and he became vice chairman. To mark his contribution to Sandwell the haematology unit was designated as the ‘Walkden Unit’; in the postgraduate centre an annual Walkden prize is awarded for what is judged to be the best presentation of a clinical medical problem by a junior doctor.

After his retirement in 1987 he moved to the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. This was an apt choice. The village is best known for its ethos of public service and sacrifice: in 1665, when plague was discovered, the inhabitants decided to choose isolation rather than let the infection spread.

Barrie S Smith

(Volume XII, page web)

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