Lives of the fellows

Walter Eric (Sir) Chiesman

b.9 July 1900 d.13 August 1973
Kt(1960) CB(1955) MRCS LRCP(1925) MB BChir Cantab(1927) MD(1934) MRCP(1934) FRCP(1947)

Walter Eric Chiesman was bom in London, the son of Walter Chiesman, owner of Chiesman’s Department Stores in South London, and of Minnie Curtis, the daugher of a builder. He went to Whitgift School and decided early on medicine as his career - against the advice of his headmaster. He volunteered for the army in 1918, but the war was over before he could see active service. He had an excellent singing voice and went to Cambridge as a choral scholar at Corpus Christi, where he began his medical studies. Being tall and heavily built, he was a keen sportsman and played rugby for his college ( he had been captain of his school XV), got his half-blue for swimming and became captain of the University Swimming Club.

From Cambridge he went to St. Thomas’s, where he did well, intending to pursue academic medicine. He qualified with the Conjoint Diploma in 1925, taking his MB, BChir two years later. This was followed by the London membership and by the MD in 1934. He became Resident Assistant Physician at St. Thomas’s and, subsequently, First Assistant to the Medical Professorial Unit from 1929 to 1932. He also acquired a reputation as one of the leading amateur actors of the hospital and as the joint manager of a series of brilliant Christmas shows. To the end of his life he was an accomplished raconteur, and his convivial nature was much aided by his flair for the culinary arts; he was a cook of almost Cordon Bleu standard. He was an excellent teacher and became interested in research on peptic ulcer, but he left St. Thomas’s when he did not get the staff appointment he had hoped for.

Being an outstanding and dedicated physician, he settled in general practice of a very high standard and did well. An appointment as a part-time adviser to a large chemical company satisfied his bent for the scientific side of medicine. At the outbreak of war, in 1939, he became full-time medical adviser to ICI’s General Chemical Division and was in charge of a section concerned with the study of chemical warfare, which (happily) never materialised; but it was there that he acquired his reputation, not only as an originator of research, but as an administrator and as an expert on problems of industrial medicine. His publications during that time are witness to his clear thinking, good sense and capacity for organizing practical research. The award of the Copeman Medal for Scientific Research was a well deserved recognition of his efforts. His paper in the British Medical Journal in 1945 on the "Diagnosis and Treatment of Injuries due to Vesicants" was a classic.

At the same time, he made friends because of his tact and genuine interest in people. It was not entirely surprising, therefore, that in 1945 he was invited to succeed Sir Henry Bashford, the first Medical Adviser to the Treasury, in those days the virtual head of the medical services to the whole civil service, including the Post Office, covering the problems of nearly three-quarter million people, with a cross section of all occupations in the United Kingdom and overseas. In this position he remained until his retirement in 1965, and carried out an enormous amount of pioneering work and reforms, which had a great influence on the development of occupational medicine in this country. Two later papers spotlight this influence: on "Clinical Aspects of Absenteeism", given to the Royal Society of Health Congress in 1959, and his Presidential Address in the same year on "Rehabilitation".

Having been elected FRCP in 1947, he became President of the Association of Industrial Medical Officers 1957-1959, and he left his mark on that society. He also developed a particular interest in industrial rehabilitation, on which he advised the Ministry of Labour. In 1950, he became honorary physician to King George VI, and in 1952, to Queen Elizabeth II. In 1955, he was appointed Companion to the Order of the Bath, and in 1960 he was created a knight. He was a big, kindly, convivial man, a father figure to his juniors, with a great sense of humour, but of considerable modesty. Apart from medicine, his main hobbies were gardening and fishing and he was no mean handyman.

His last years were dogged by a slow, progressive, incapacitating illness, borne with great fortitude.

In 1930, he married Feodora Rennie, daughter of Dr. Frank Rennie, who was a well known general practitioner. From this very happy marriage, there were two daughters and a son.

VC Medvei

[Brit.med.J., 1973 3, 506; Lancet, 1973, 2, 459; Times, 15 Aug 1973]

(Volume VI, page 101)

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