Lives of the fellows

Joan (Lady) Slack

b.19 February 1925 d.4 October 2015
BA BM BCh Oxon(1949) DCH(1952) DM(1972) MFCM(1974) FRCP(1979)

Lady Joan Slack was a consultant clinical geneticist at the Royal Free Hospital, London. She was a woman who liked to ‘put her all’ into, and succeed at, anything she put her hand to throughout life, be it in the class room, the sports field or her family. She also held particularly firm opinions about how the medical profession should defend standards of medical practice in a climate where this was becoming increasingly difficult.

She was the daughter of a stockbroker, Talbot Wheelwright, who died playing golf when she was 12, and his second wife, Amy, a champion chess player, among other accomplishments, who in 1936 became joint British Commonwealth Ladies Champion. After her secondary education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, where she succeeded both in the classroom and on the sports field (but hated board games), Joan won a scholarship to read medicine at St Hilda’s College, Oxford in 1943. She moved to London for her clinical studies, and was one of the first six women to do this at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, which had until then only been open to male students.

Shortly after qualifying, she entered general practice, working on the Caledonian Road, London, in the then very deprived area of King’s Cross, and whilst there had a great interest in the sessions being arranged by Michael and Enid Balint at the Tavistock Clinic, possibly the first people to properly look at the psychological impact of general practice on the doctors themselves. In 1952, she married a fellow Oxford medical graduate, William Slack (who later became a general surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital and serjeant surgeon to the Queen).

In 1959 they went to Chicago as part of William’s surgical training, where she developed what was to become a lifelong interest in genetics whilst working at the genetics unit of the Children’s Memorial Hospital.

In 1963, after returning from the USA and a short spell back in general practice, this time in the rather less deprived Golders Green area of north London, she took up a post in clinical genetics at the Institute of Child Health in London. It was here that she started to investigate the inheritance patterns of coronary heart disease and lipoproteinaemias, for which she was awarded a DM in 1972. This work led to her being elected as a founder member of the Faculty of Community Medicine at Royal College of Physicians, without examination, and subsequently being elected as an FRCP without having previously achieved the MRCP by passing the required exams; this ability to progress through the ranks of the Royal College of Physicians without troubling the examiners was something she was very proud of and she light heartedly joked about, saying that good things come to those who wait!

She subsequently became involved in research into the genetics of colon cancer, working closely with the staff at St Mark’s Hospital, and was appointed as a consultant clinical geneticist to the Royal Free Hospital, London in the 1980s, before retiring in 1990.

She then moved to Somerset, where she started a new career with William and one of her sons in farming. She quickly made herself very knowledgeable about the diet requirements of the livestock, worried about the advice given concerning the use antibiotics as growth enhancers, and was frequently seen on a tractor mucking out the pigs. Always interested in education, she was appointed as a governor to one of the local secondary schools, and also helped put her father-in-law’s First World War letters and other documentation into the public domain on a website designed to be used by secondary school students.

In addition to this, following an inheritance of a number of artefacts from the family of the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey, she catalogued them and they were subsequently shown at special exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and in Tokyo, as well as being loaned for other specialist exhibitions. She was particularly pleased when two students based their PhD theses around these artefacts.

She was a woman of strong opinions, and continued to defend many of these robustly well into her more senior years. Lady Joan Slack died aged 90, leaving her husband, two sons and two daughters, and 10 grandchildren.

Rob Slack

[Plummer, S J. The Wheelwright family story Cloth Wrap Publishing, 2010]

(Volume XII, page web)

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