Lives of the fellows

John Nicholas (Baron Walton of Detchant in the County of Northumberland) Walton

b.16 September 1922 d.21 April 2016
Kt(1979) MB BS Durh(1945) MRCP(1950) MD(1952) FRCP(1963) DSc Newcastle(1972) Hon DSc Leeds(1979) Hon FACP(1980) Hon DSc Leicester(1980) Hon FRCP Edin(1981) FRCPC(1984) Hon MD Sheffield(1987) Hon DSc Hull(1988) Hon DCL Newcastle(1988) Hon FRCPath(1993) Hon FRCPysch(1993) Hon DSc Oxford Brookes(1994) Hon FRCPCH(1996) Hon MD Mahidol(1998) Hon DSc Durh(2002) Hon DCL Northumbria(2013)

John Walton was a major figure in neurology, in British medicine as a whole and in medical politics in Britain and abroad. He had a much-admired gift for communication, speaking in rounded phrases, seemingly in paragraphs, an ability he displayed in many invited addresses, as chairman of many statutory and voluntary organisations, and for 27 years as a crossbench independent life peer in the House of Lords. Throughout his life his easy facility for influencing people was used to good effect in professional organisations at home and abroad. He had an especial facility for telling Novocastrian stories, in an authentic accent. Born in Rowlands Gill, County Durham, he was educated at the Alderman Wraith Grammar School, Spennymoor, and at the Durham University Medical School, in Newcastle upon Tyne, graduating in 1945 with honours in all subjects. His father, Herbert, was a schoolmaster; his mother, Eleanor Watson née Ward, the daughter of a Northumbrian miner. He married Mary Elizabeth Harrison, whom he had met at school, in 1946, a marriage broken only by her death in 2003. He was survived by their son, Chris, and two daughters, Anne and Judy.

As a student in Newcastle he showed early ability. He was awarded the Turnbull, Outterson Wood, Gibson and Philipson prizes, and served as president of the medical sub-committee of the students’ representative council and treasurer of the British Medical Students’ Association. He was house physician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, to F J Nattrass [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.421], who was to become a major influence, and to James Spence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.366], before National Service in the Army, serving on hospital ships, beginning in 1947.

In 1949 he was appointed as a registrar to the colourful Newcastle neurologist, Henry Miller [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.396], obtaining the MRCP in 1950. He worked with Nattrass as a research assistant from 1951 to 1956 and, during this appointment, spent a year in Boston at the Massachusetts General Hospital as a Nuffield Medical Foundation fellow, a secondment that resulted in a monograph on polymyositis written with R D Adams (Polymyositis Edinburgh, London, E&S Livingstone, 1958). He gained an MD in 1952. Returning to England in October 1954, he was a King’s College travelling fellow at the neurological research unit at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London, working with Arnold Carmichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.91] for a year. During this time his involvement in medical politics continued as chairman of the registrars’ group committee of members of the Royal College of Physicians.

He was appointed as a first assistant in neurology at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in 1956 and as a consultant neurologist in June 1958. He was appointed professor of neurology at the University of Newcastle in 1968 and served as dean of medicine for 10 years from 1971, a period of immense activity in his professional life. He left Newcastle, having been elected warden of Green College, Oxford, in 1983, following the retirement of Sir Richard Doll [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. In September 1989, he was elected an honorary fellow of Green College on his elevation to the House of Lords as an independent peer.

Lord Walton’s research publications centred on muscle disease. An early paper on the classification and treatment of muscular dystrophies written with Fred Nattrass, based on a survey of muscular disease in the Newcastle area, was a seminal contribution to the modern classification of these disorders (‘On the classification, natural history and treatment of the myopathies’ Brain. 1954;77[2]:169-231). He proceeded to publish more than 150 original papers. However, his strengths lay in his gifts as an organiser and summariser of ideas, for example in his monographs on Subarachnoid haemorrhage (Edinburgh, London, E&S Livingstone, 1956), the subject of his MD thesis, and on Polymyositis. He introduced order into the then chaotic nomenclature of muscle diseases in his major text Disorders of voluntary muscle (now in its eighth edition –Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), wrote the much-admired Essentials of neurology (London, Pitman Medical, 1971) and co-edited a major multi-author book with Frank L Mastaglia, Skeletal muscle pathology (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1982). He also edited several editions of Brain’s diseases of the nervous system and an Introduction to clinical neuroscience (London, Balliere Tindall, 1983). He remarked apropos medical textbooks that they were not too difficult to write, but that revising them for new editions was time-consuming and tedious, if unavoidable, leading to the accumulation of more and more work! He edited the Journal of the Neurological Sciences (from 1966 to 1977) and Current Opinion in Neurology and Neurosurgery.

His greatest contribution to medicine and neurology, however, stemmed from his flair for seeking to secure a reasonable outcome, not always compromise, in dealing with strongly held and opposed viewpoints. He proved this ability by serving as president of the General Medical Council from 1982 to 1989, of the British Medical Association from 1980 to 1982, of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1984 to 1989 (of which he was later a gold medallist), and of the Association of British Neurologists from 1987 to 1988. He was vice president of the World Federation of Neurology from 1981 to 1989 and president from 1989 to 1997, in which roles he did much to foster improvements in neurological facilities, care and education in the developing world, lecturing extensively in many countries. He served on the Medical Research Council from 1974 to 1978, and was a member of its clinical research board and chairman of the grants committee. He became chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Group of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1971, and was honorary chairman of the British Medical Students’ Association. He was president of the Association for the Study of Medical Education (from 1981), and supported a number of local organisations in Newcastle upon Tyne and the University of Newcastle.

On his entry to the House of Lords in 1989, he found himself involved in debates about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, speaking in support of the Bill not only as a clinician-scientist but also as a Christian, against opposition from anti-abortion peers, and proved himself formidable in debate. He served on the science and technology committee of the House of Lords, and was for a time chairman of the medical ethics select committee. Later in his tenure in the House, he presented new legislation supporting research in Newcastle designed to obviate the risks of mitochondrial disorder – so-called ‘three parent offspring’.

In 1980, to his great honour and delight, he was made an honorary freeman of the City of Newcastle, on the occasion of the City’s 900th anniversary year. In 1993 his autobiography The spice of life: from Northumbria to world neurology (Royal Society of Medicine Service, Heinemann, 1983) was published. He remained active in the House of Lords until, at age 93, his terminal illness suddenly declared itself with a seizure in the House of Lords library. After diagnosis he declined excessive therapy, accepted palliative management, and returned to his beloved Newcastle; these last days were explained to his friends in a circulated, moving tribute to life and happiness, with an implied admonition to others to follow where he had led. Few physicians have done so much in life, and have left so much for others to emulate.

Michael Swash

[University of Newcastle upon Tyne Medical Gazette 1967 61 (2) 42-3; University of Newcastle upon Tyne Medical Gazette 1971 66 (1) 4]; Postgraduate Medical Journal 1992 68 497-9; The Telegraph 25 April 2016 – accessed 13 March 2017; The Times 28 April 2016 – accessed 13 March 2017; The Guardian 7 June 2016 – accessed 13 March 2017; The Lancet 2016 387 2194 – accessed 13 March 2017; BMJ 2016 353 2491 – accessed 13 March 2017; The Royal Society of Medicine obituary: Lord Walton of Detchant, RSM president 1984-1986 8 May 2016 – accessed 13 March 2017; Lord Walton of Detchant 1922-2016 We will be brief London, Muscular Dystrophy UK]

(Volume XII, page web)

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