Lives of the fellows

Kenneth Sunderland Holt

b.1 May 1924 d.25 June 2015
MD Rochester(1946) MB ChB Manch(1947) MRCP(1949) DCH(1953) MD(1957) FRCP(1970) FRCPCH(1996)

Kenneth Sunderland Holt was professor of developmental paediatrics at the Institute of Child Health, director of the Wolfson Centre and an honorary consultant at the Hospital for Sick Children (Great Ormond Street), London. He was born in Nelson, Lancashire, the son of Tom Cardus Holt, a cotton manufacturer, and Hilda Holt née Sunderland. Educated at Nelson Grammar School, he chose medicine as his career, and was fast-tracked into the second year of Manchester University Medical School in 1941, aged 17; there he met his wife-to-be, Winifred (née Knight).

In 1944, he won a prestigious Rockerfeller scholarship to study in the United States, travelling across the Atlantic in a wartime convoy. In 1946, he graduated MD from Rochester University, New York, and was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

A six months’ internship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston followed. As intended, he returned home in 1946 on the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth after her life as a troop-ship. He then qualified, for a second time, as a doctor in Manchester in 1947, and married in 1948. Following two house jobs at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, he worked in the pathology department for a year. Having achieved his membership of the Royal College of Physicians in January 1949, he was called to do National Service at the age of 25 and was appointed as a medical specialist at Military Hospital 9, Hamburg, where, amongst his patients, were defendants in the Nuremberg Trials.

Kenneth and Winifred returned to England in 1952, where he had paediatric posts in Sheffield, London (at the Hospital for Sick Children) and in Manchester, before settling in Sheffield in 1954 with a lecturing post in paediatrics. Family life flourished with the birth of their three daughters. In 1958, he was offered a research fellowship at the medical school and children’s centre in Iowa City, USA, and the family left the UK for a memorable year abroad.

On his return to Sheffield, he took up the post of senior lecturer and consultant at the Children’s Hospital. He set up the Ryegate Centre in Sheffield – a highly innovative and ground-breaking, inter-disciplinary service for children with multiple disabilities. This ground-breaking and multidisciplinary approach has now become the norm for medicine in general, and globally for the assessment of child disability. This innovation led to him being asked to establish the first national such centre at Great Ormond Street in 1965 – the Wolfson Centre.

Under his leadership, the Wolfson Centre, uniquely, combined its role in the diagnosis and treatment of children with profound disabilities (and support for their families), with a key role as a national and international centre for training and research. Under the auspices of the British Council, he trained many paediatricians from a wide variety of countries. Invitations for further lecturing and training abroad followed. He was twice visiting professor in Australia, and advised the governments of Hong Kong and Kuwait. In addition, as a member of the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy, he worked with professionals of like interest in the United States.

During this time, he was also influential in many charities, including the Invalid Children’s Aid Association, the Brittle Bone Society, the Star Centre for Youth and the Thalidomide Society. In the course of this work, he met, and appreciated the interest of, several members of the Royal Family. In 1969, he delivered the Milroy lecture at the Royal College of Physicians, titled ‘The quality of survival’. He was later awarded a personal chair in developmental paediatrics at the Institute of Child Health, University of London.

Throughout his distinguished career, he wrote several books, including: Assessment of cerebral palsy (London, Lloyd-Luke Medical Books, 1965 and 1967), Developmental paediatrics: perspectives and practice (London, Butterworth, 1977) and Child development (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1991). He also collaborated with other specialists in his field, wrote many articles in medical journals and was influential in the setting up of a specialist journal – Child: Care, Health and Development. He was a founder member of the Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism and of the UK-based Paediatric Research Society. He was an active member of the British Paediatric Association. In 1989, he retired from the Wolfson Centre, as an emeritus professor, University of London.

Kenneth was a true pioneer in the field of developmental paediatrics. His early conviction – that children’s neurological conditions should be seen as developmental disorders and treated holistically, as part of family-centred care – is now standard practice, however, it wasn’t in the 1960s, when he introduced this approach. He has been described by former associates as ‘way ahead of his time’ and as having been ‘a true giant in the field of children’s care’. Essential to the success of his work was his strong commitment to multidisciplinary team-work, which encouraged colleagues to develop ideas and innovate. His model of medical leadership was rare in the 1960s, and is still an inspiration to health and care professionals today.

After retirement, he worked as an expert witness in both civil and criminal proceedings. He was involved in well over 300 cases, including that of the child serial killer Beverley Allitt. He finished his last case at the age of 75.

Kenneth and Winifred moved to Oxfordshire in 1994. Despite his steadily deteriorating mobility, which started in his early sixties when he needed a back operation, he was able to take an interested part in village and family life. They started a bridge club, helped with Deddington News and were active members of Deddington Church. He helped to establish the day care centre in Deddington, and worked hard to enable it to gain charitable status. He enjoyed membership of Probus, and its opportunity to make many new friends.

During the final 18 months of his life, he was able to participate in several happy family occasions. He showed great dignity to the last. Such was his unassuming and softly-spoken manner, that many of the village acquaintances remained unaware of his distinguished career in medicine until his memorial service in Deddington Parish Church.

He was survived by Winifred, their children, Caroline, Alison, and Georgina, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Kenneth’s surviving family

[BMJ 2015 351 4985 – accessed 31 January 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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