Lives of the fellows

Donald Walker Barritt

b.5 September 1921 d.10 February 2015
MB BS Lond(1944) MRCP(1948) MD(1952) FRCP(1966)

Donald Walker Barritt (known throughout his medical career as ‘Bill’) was a consultant physician at Bristol Royal Infirmary. He was born in Walgrave, a small village in rural Northamptonshire. His father, Bertram (‘Bert’), worked in a local shoe factory, and his mother, Sarah Ann (‘Annie’) née Walker, was the daughter of the factory owner. There was a pump for water in the garden; he went to bed and read via candle light; and in his summer holidays he worked on his uncle’s farm ploughing with a horse.

He attended Kettering Grammar School and excelled – in many ways this set the course of his life. He specialised in the arts at first, then switched to science and went on to medical school at Charing Cross Hospital in London. He qualified MB BS in 1944.

After two years as a captain in the RAMC, he resumed his civilian medical career as the NHS was born. His first child was born in 1946 with complex congenital heart disease and this undoubtedly strengthened his interest in cardiology. In 1949 he was appointed as a registrar at Fulham and Charing Cross hospitals; in 1952 he moved to Bristol, where he undertook a research lectureship studying the effects of familial hypercholesterolaemia in the genesis of coronary artery disease. In 1956 he was appointed as a consultant cardiologist at the United Bristol Hospitals and as a consultant physician in 1959. He gave unstinting support to the development of cardiac surgery in Bristol and eventually led a department serving the west of England and beyond.

In 1957 he supervised a controlled trial of anticoagulant therapy in patients with acute pulmonary embolism, a treatment then regarded as hazardous and of doubtful benefit by its detractors. The resulting paper (‘Anticoagulant drugs in the treatment of pulmonary embolism. A controlled trial.’ Lancet. 1960 Jun 18;1[7138]:1309-12) showed that treatment with heparin and coumarin anticoagulants was both effective and safe. It was still being cited 40 years later.

He published many research papers, lectured around the world – including Australia, India, the Philippines and Japan – and examined medical students abroad. He co-edited and part-wrote Modern medicine: a textbook for students, practitioners, and examiners (London, Pitman, 1975).

He enjoyed every moment of his medical career. After retirement from full-time work in 1982, he continued to make use of his expertise by assisting with medical tribunals for many more years.

A former colleague acknowledged the debt he owes to Donald: ‘I was selected for the position in Bristol and, out of the 13 candidates who appeared for interview, I was the only Indian. He treated me as an able colleague and this reflected his greatness. In addition to cardiology, I learned from him how to extend loving care not only to patients but also to their families.’ He was a man of generosity, energy, enthusiasm, passion and care. He cared deeply for his patients and their families, and was respected and liked by them, as well as by his colleagues.

Whilst training at Charing Cross during the war Donald met Doris Brittain, a night sister. They married in 1945 and had five children, Jane, Sarah, Mary, Anne and Peter, in the space of seven years. Doris looked after the children and hosted parties for medical colleagues, while Donald’s role as a pastoral tutor to medical students also often meant extra guests for dinner.

They were able to celebrate 45 happy years of marriage before Doris died suddenly in 1990. Two years later, Donald married Rosalind, the start of a second long and happy marriage. Rosalind fully entered into the fray by showing great love and hospitality to Donald’s large family. Donald delighted in seeing his ever-growing family together, and the annual weekend get-togethers of children, grandchildren, assorted tents and caravans were a highlight of his year.

His son Peter became a doctor, as did three of his grandchildren, one of whom described him as the most kind, energetic and inspirational of people.

For Donald, off-duty time was precious, but once a year he and Doris would pack the family into the car, caravan in tow, and drive the seven of them to Italy or Spain or his beloved France. Rural France perhaps reminded him of his youth in rural England. He was a romantic, unequivocal Francophile, always working on some new scheme to travel to hidden corners, searching for vineyards or on the lookout for the lunchtime plat du jour and to call upon what he claimed was a remarkable command of French. And in much later life, when wandering round France became impractical, he developed a passion for cruises, satisfying his desire to see more of the world as well as revisiting favourite old haunts.

At home in Long Ashton he became a season ticket holder at Bristol City Football Club. Donald loved sports – he played tennis in his youth, and was captain of the hospital cricket team – and throughout his eighties he enjoyed playing bowls.

He immersed himself in village affairs with dedication and enthusiasm. He became a local councillor and chairman of the parish council for a time, supported and campaigned for the Liberal Democrats, and tirelessly fundraised for the village hall and other local amenities. He and Rosalind were often to be found peeling buckets of potatoes and making quantities of onion gravy for some charity evening dinner and entertainment.

He loved growing vegetables and fruit, indeed he planted an orchard in his garden in his eighties. He was immensely proud to show off his produce in the garden and on the dinner table, and also proud of the solar panels generating electricity on the roof of his house. Life was busy, but at times he would sink into his chair, immersed in The life of Gladstone, or some similar thousand-page-plus volume of history, politics or biography.

Throughout his long life he did so much to contribute to his professional calling, while at the same time generously and proudly supporting and enjoying his growing family. He was survived by Rosalind, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mary Bates (née Barritt)

[BMJ 2015 350 2623 – accessed 19 March 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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