Lives of the fellows

James Caldwell Houston

b.18 February 1917 d.8 May 2013
CBE(1982) MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BS Lond(1940) MRCP(1945) MD(1946) FRCP(1956)

James Houston, dean of Guy’s Hospital Medical School, was a respected physician, leading university administrator and medical author. He was born in Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire, the son of David Houston, a banker, and Minnie Walker Houston née Caldwell, the daughter of an iron founder. He was the middle of three children, and the family moved to England in 1924 when his father was promoted to assistant manager of the London branch of the Clydesdale Bank.

He was educated at Mill Hill School, and achieved a scholarship to read modern languages at Oxford. However, he reconsidered, and decided to study medicine. His headmaster insisted he should go to Guy's, and he duly enrolled in the first MB course there in 1934. After qualifying MRCS LRCP in 1939, he was put to work giving anaesthetics to people requiring surgery after being injured in the Blitz.

In 1941 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to India from 1942 to 1945. During the six-week sea journey he played bridge, reaching the competition final, in which he was beaten by Douglas Jardine, who had captained the England cricket team during the ‘bodyline bowling’ Ashes test series of 1932 to 1933. His ship survived the journey, but was sunk by a U-boat during its return with the loss of all lives. In India, he was appointed as a medical specialist and reached the rank of major. In 1944 he gained the best marks in the first-ever overseas examination for membership of the Royal College of Physicians.

Following the war, he married a fellow RAMC officer, Thelma Cruickshank, in 1946. She was a daughter of John Cruickshank, first professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen. Houston returned to Guy's as a medical registrar, then clinical tutor from 1947 to 1953. He was an assistant physician to the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth from 1951, and assistant physician to Guy's Hospital from 1953. Two years later he became sub-dean of the medical school, and in 1965 succeeded Sir Rowan Boland [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.52] as dean of the medical and dental schools, a position he held for 17 years. He made a great contribution to the training of the next generations of Guy's doctors. He oversaw the merger with St Thomas's and became the first dean of the joint medical schools of Guy's and St Thomas's from 1982 to 1984. When he retired in 1984, he had been at Guy's for 50 years, excepting the disruption during the war.

Houston was a shrewd clinician and excellent teacher, demonstrating by example a great ability to elicit pertinent features of the history and clinical examination. He was a good judge of character and an efficient administrator, which enabled him to lead the medical school successfully and with popularity over many years. He served on many boards and committees, including the committee of vice-chancellors and principals of London University, and chaired the collegiate council of the University of London from 1976 until 1979, as well as chairing the Conference of Metropolitan Deans. He was on the board of the faculty of clinical medicine at the University of Cambridge from 1975 to 1981. He was an examiner in the final MB, not only in the UK, but in Jamaica and Malaysia. His clinical duties at Guy's included running the asthma clinic and the staff health service.

He co-authored the highly successful A short textbook of medicine (London, English Universities Press), popular with medical students, having eight editions between 1962 and 1985, and referred to as the 'little green Bible'. He also co-authored a bestselling textbook for nurses, Principles of medicine and medical nursing (London, English Universities Press, 1962) and edited Guy's Hospital Reports.

He was a director of the Clerical, Medical and General Life Assurance Company (from 1965 to 1987), vice-president of the Medical Defence Union (from 1970 to 1992) and a trustee of the Hayward Foundation. He was appointed CBE in 1982.

Houston was a skilled fundraiser, bringing millions of pounds into the medical school for research and building developments, and he was heavily involved in the development of the Guy's Hospital Tower, in which he had a close collaboration with Lord Robens, the former Labour minister and chairman of the National Coal Board, who was chairman of the board of governors of Guy's Hospital from 1965 to 1974. He also had a close association with Lord Nuffield, the motor manufacturer, who was a generous benefactor of Guy's.

In addition to his NHS and academic responsibilities, he enjoyed an active private practice from 108 Harley Street. One of his patients was Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, whom he visited at home. Not being in touch with the pop music that was playing and not knowing who Epstein was, Houston said ‘You don't like this rubbish do you?’ The music was tactfully changed to a piece by Mendelssohn.

Apart from work and family life, Houston's great passion was golf. He was a member of the Medical Golfing Society, and for many years played in the annual Guy's staff versus students match at Huntercombe Golf Club. Whenever possible, he would join a regular group of fellow medical golfers for 18 holes, and he was a longstanding member of Addington Golf Club.

Although he was always known as ‘George’ to his work colleagues, he was ‘Jim’ to his family and non-medical friends. He had great energy, a keen sense of humour, and was a devoted family man. He and his wife Thelma were a true love match, and were together for 62 years. Thelma, also a doctor, as well as bringing up four sons, carried out well baby, antenatal and well women clinics for many years. They acquired a country cottage with 10 acres of wood near Maidstone in 1961, and it was a perpetual joy to escape there at weekends, to enjoy gardening and the peace of the countryside. The family enjoyed many happy times there over nearly 44 years. Unfortunately Thelma developed dementia in her last years, and Jim looked after her with fortitude at home, knowing how much she would have hated a care home. She predeceased him in 2009. Jim required aortic valve replacement at the age of 88 for severe aortic valve stenosis, the success of which gave him an eight year extension of life. He was survived by four sons (Ken, Brian, Alan and Andrew), the first three of whom became doctors, the fourth choosing a career in the financial world.

Brian Houston

[The Telegraph 25 July 2013 – accessed 19 May 2015; BMJ 2013 347 5188 – accessed 19 May 2015; The Times 23 and 31 May 2013; Guy's Hospital Gazette v.96, no.2320 p.55, 27 Feb 1982, and v.98, no.2346, pp.325-7, Sept 1984]

(Volume XII, page web)

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