Lives of the fellows

David Gardner-Medwin

b.13 November 1936 d.14 June 2014
MB BChir Cantab(1962) MRCP(1965) MD(1972) FRCP(1977)

David Gardner-Medwin was an outstanding paediatric neurologist, a competent researcher and above all a compassionate and dedicated doctor, totally committed to caring for his patients and their families in the widest sense. His father, Robert Joseph Gardner-Medwin, was an architect who ultimately held the chair of architecture at the University of Liverpool. His mother, Margaret Gardner-Medwin née Kilgour, a Canadian who met his father on a transatlantic voyage, was the daughter of Geills Kilgour née McCrae, the sister of the notable John McCrae, the war poet who wrote the memorable poem In Flanders fields. Another brother of John McCrae was Thomas [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.485], a colleague of the great Sir William Osler [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.295] at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who left the family a signed photograph of Sir William Osler, which became one of David’s most precious possessions; Osler, the great physician whose memory is hallowed by Osler Societies in Britain, the United States and Japan, was throughout his life a great inspiration. David strove to emulate, with considerable success, Osler's Counsels and ideals.

Brought up in London, Edinburgh and for a time in the West Indies (the family lived in Barbados when he was seven to 10), David attended the Edinburgh Academy. At school he was a keen birdwatcher and played rugby and cricket well, but following the example of his grandfather, a general practitioner, he eventually decided to study medicine, studying first at King’s College, Cambridge, followed by clinical training at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He graduated MB BChir in 1962.

After house appointments in Exeter (surgery) and Farnborough (medicine), he obtained a senior house officer/lecturer post in pathology at Bart's, then became a medical registrar, and finally moved into neurology with John Aldren Turner [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.582]. Because of an interest in neuromuscular disease, he applied for and was appointed as a research assistant in neurology with John Walton in Newcastle to study the genetics and clinical features of the muscular dystrophies. His colleagues in Bart’s expressed amazement that he should want to work in the north east, saying: ‘It's all pit heaps up there!’ In this research post he carried out major projects relating specifically to the identification of female carriers of the X-linked recessive gene responsible for the most severe form of the disease, and his thesis on this topic was submitted successfully for an MD of Cambridge in 1972.

It was his deep and growing concern for the welfare of patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy which also led him to establish in Newcastle a team, including nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and others, who set out to improve the overall management of these patients, significantly increasing their longevity and quality of life. Although he became a senior registrar in adult neurology, he knew that the authorities in Newcastle hoped to appoint a paediatric neurologist; hence he studied paediatrics for six months with Donald Court [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.77], then deputised for Michael Parkin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.405], who went for six months to Uganda, and Hans Steiner was one of his mentors. David also studied neonates with Gerald Neligan [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.425], and spent some time with Israel Kolvin in child psychiatry. With the enthusiastic support of Henry Miller [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.396] and John Walton, he obtained a Harkness fellowship to spend a year in Boston, working with Raymond Adams in neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Charles Barlow at Boston Children's Hospital.

On his return to Newcastle in 1971 he was appointed as a consultant paediatric neurologist to the northern region in January 1972. In this post, he was not only greatly respected by his neurological and paediatric colleagues, but was also revered by his patients and their families, who found him an immensely understanding and caring doctor, always willing to give them cogent and invaluable advice and support. They and his colleagues will remember him with respect, pleasure and affection. Through his teaching, he also inspired many young doctors to train in paediatric neurology.

David was a founder member of the British Paediatric Neurology Association and later its secretary and treasurer. Being a member of both the departments of neurology and paediatrics in Newcastle was in his view a great advantage. He eventually followed Ronald Mac Keith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.358] as secretary of the Mac Keith Press, which publishes work on paediatric neurology. He eventually retired from his consultant post in 1996 when aged 60, recognising that Kate Bushby and her associates were fully capable and ready to assume the responsibilities he had fulfilled single-handedly for so long.

On retirement, he indulged in many of his lifelong interests in history and ornithology. As a student in Cambridge, he had completed a study of bird migration across the Pyrenees, which led to a scientific publication. After retirement he served as a representative of the Natural History Society on the Otterburn Inquiry, set up to study the effects on local wildlife of the military firing ranges in that area, attending virtually every day for six months. He secured several notable concessions. He went on many bird watching holidays in South America, Indonesia, Kenya, Israel and Australia, and also, because of his lifelong interest in the naturalist Thomas Bewick, became vice president of the Thomas Bewick Society. He was also a devoted member of the Literary and Philosophical Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, and completed before his death a comprehensive study of Bewick's family history and antecedents.

He and his wife also became proud Northumbrians; he was an enthusiastic member of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, based in the Hancock Museum, Newcastle, where he was for a time chairman of the library committee and later chair of the council. They also loved the music of Charles Avison, the Northumbrian composer, and were regular attenders at concerts at the Sage, Gateshead.

David was a proud father and grandfather, and when asked what his proudest achievement was, he said, 'my family.' He met Alisoun Shire when working as a house officer in Farnborough and they married in the chapel of King's College Cambridge, where Alisoun’s father Edward Shire was a fellow, and they had an immensely fulfilling family life. There is one son, Robert, a notable civil servant, and a daughter, Janet, who now practises as a paediatric oncologist in Glasgow. Sadly, David developed severe leukaemia in early 2014, which led ultimately to his being admitted to St Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle, where he was superbly cared for in the last days of his life. When visited there, he displayed a remarkable aura of acceptance and tranquillity. At his funeral service in Heddon-on-the-Wall, where he and Alisoun had bought a lovely house with splendid views of the Tyne Valley on coming to Newcastle, his daughter gave a superb tribute and, at David’s request, a recording of the song of whimbrels was played during the ceremony. Here was a fine doctor, a superb family man, a polymath with wide interests and a delightful and memorable human being.

John, Lord Walton of Detchant

[Personal tribute by Janet McDonald (daughter) – accessed 22 December 2014; BMJ 2014 349 5174; The Times 11 September 2014; The Telegraph 2 July 2014 – accessed 22 December 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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