Lives of the fellows

James Riddick Heron

b.21 January 1932 d.2 February 2016
MRCS LRCP(1958) MB ChB Birm(1964) MRCP Edin(1964) FRCP Edin(1971) FRCP(1980)

James Riddick Heron (known as Jim) was professor of neurology at the University of Keele, Staffordshire. He was born in a butcher’s shop in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the son of James Riddick Heron and Sophia Heron née Leatham. As a child, his family moved to Birmingham, where his father, an engineer who had previously worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway (and designed the Austin 7 car), sought work. Jim was evacuated to Scotland for two years during the Second World War. As with so many others, this displacement had a major impact on his life and forever stayed with him. His love for the Scottish language and writing never left him.

He was educated at King Edward’s School in Birmingham (where he won a scholarship) and then went to the University of Birmingham to study medicine. At university, he was editor of the Birmingham Literary Magazine and swayed towards the arts and literature, before making the decision to commit to medicine and neurology as a career. He continued to write throughout his life and published both in the arts and sciences, a false division he never recognised. He qualified with the conjoint examination in 1958.

He was a house physician and surgeon in 1958 and 1959. He trained in neurology at the Royal Free Hospital, London and the National Hospital, Queen Square, as well as the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, before being appointed as a consultant neurologist at the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary, Stoke-on-Trent in 1967.

He was a senior lecturer in neurology at Keele University, Staffordshire, from 1980 to 1994, and then became professor of neurology in the postgraduate medical school at Keele University. From 1993 to 1994 he was president of the Association of British Neurologists.

In 1982 he was awarded the Medicine-Gilliland travelling fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, which enabled him to visit the University of Colorado, Denver, USA.

His main area of research, continued over many years, was related to the visual system and how it was affected by multiple sclerosis. He studied visual psychophysics in optic neuritis. He was the author of over 60 papers, many on this subject and many written in collaboration with David H Foster in the department of communication and neuroscience at the University of Keele.

As a teacher he had immense patience and was dedicated to the principles of traditional neurology based on detailed observation, rigour and discipline. He helped shape the careers of many eminent neurologists, including Nick Gutowski, Mike Boggild, Will Honan, Richard Davenport, Clive Hawkins, David Francis, Richard Jones, Victor Patterson, Roddy Galvin, Mike Sambrook and Damien Wren. Many other registrars who trained with him went on to be consultants in other specialties.

As a consultant in Stoke, he instituted many new, successful teaching methods, including the inauguration of an annual visiting professorship. This was held by several eminent figures, including Shirley Wray, John Walton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], David Marsden [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.378], Ian McDonald [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Chris Kennard, P K Thomas [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Michael Swash, Anita Harding [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.190], Alastair Compston [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Simon Shorvon, David Miller and many others.

He joined the Osler club in London in the late 1990s and gave many papers, the first of which was ‘Opening the dura’ in December 1996. He was president of the Osler Club from 2003 to 2005.

He set up the Christmas lectures for school children at the North Staffordshire Medical Institute. His lifelong belief in the importance and value of a fair and universal education was expressed in his fight for the old grammar schools, a commitment to local education and assisted free places, and his ongoing involvement with medical education in north Staffordshire. He was a governor at Newcastle-under-Lyme School.

A strong patron of the arts, he was instrumental in the transition from the old Victoria Theatre to setting up the new Victoria Theatre, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, alongside the pioneering director, Peter Cheeseman.

He was a chorister as a child and his love of music never left him. As a season ticket holder for the Keele concerts, he continued his love of classical music, Beethoven and the late quartets, and the Lindsay String Quartet. He was a former president of both the Bedford Singers and the Penkhull Festival in north Staffordshire.

He had a great ear for music and, although he had no formal training, he was fluent on the mouth organ. His rendition of ‘The Skye boat song’, which we all remember as children, was also enjoyed by many of those around him at St Mary's nursing home in Stone, where he spent his last years. His extensive record collection was a constant companion in his sitting room, as were his papers, pencils and piles of books, which would surround him as he sat writing into the small hours.

He wrote poetry throughout his life and was an active contributor to articles on medical history. He had a long-standing collaboration with the composer Graham Garton, who set Jim’s lyrical work to music. These works were performed at the Lichfield and Edinburgh festivals, amongst others. Some of his more accessible books were illustrated with great sensitivity by the artist Rosemary Stubbs. They shared a long friendship and mutual artistic respect.

He was calm, considerate and generous to the extreme. He had a quick wit and humour, and was a gentleman in the true sense of the word. He was a complex. thoughtful man who was a great inspiration to his children in their lives and their own creative paths. He was a man of integrity, with a strong sense of justice and morality.

He married Ann Fionnula Gamble, who was also a doctor, in May 1961. She was his constant rock for 48 years. She died in September 2009 and his last years without her were difficult for him: he missed her immensely. He was survived by their five children, Richard, Fiona, Elizabeth, Caroline and Robert (three of whom are doctors) and eight grandchildren, Kate, Alice, Louise, Ella, Fiona, Amelia, Thomas and William.

Clive Hawkins
Richard Heron

[BMJ 2016 354 4267 www.bmj.com/content/354/bmj.i4267 – accessed 23 December 2016; The Sentinel 19 March 2016 www.stokesentinel.co.uk/tributes-professor-james-heron-transformed-care/story-28954477-detail/story.html – accessed 23 December 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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