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The Novocastrian Neurologist

Eminent neurologist Lord Walton chats to Arches about his career and lifelong affiliation to the North East

Throughout Newcastle Universitys history, many distinguished academics have passed through its famous Arches. Former Dean of Medicine, Lord Walton of Detchant is one such individual. Synonymous with the University and in particular the Medical School, his remarkable career has seen him break boundaries in neurological research, inspire generations of students and hold offices at the highest level. Ahead of the 70th anniversary this year of receiving his first degree, David-John Mather chats to Lord John Walton of Detchant (MB BS 1945, MD 1952, DSc 1972, Hon DCL 1988) about his career and lifelong affiliation to Newcastle.

Born in 1922 in Rowlands Gill, a mining village on the River Derwent, the son of two schoolteachers and grandson of a miner, the young John had a scientific mind and his interest in medicine developed throughout his teenage years. ‘I remember being impressed by our family GP,’ he says. ‘It was he who inspired me to study medicine.’ He would go on to have a career spanning over seven decades, going from wartime medical student to one of the country’s most eminent neurologists. Each chapter of his career could merit its own interview and today, at the age of 92, he remains active in the House of Lords.

Those early ambitions, however, were almost derailed by the onset of World War II. On turning 18, like many others his age, he was keen to get involved in Britain’s war efforts. ‘I had an interview with the RAF,’ says Lord Walton. ‘I was selected as a pilot/observer – at least until they discovered I was originally planning to attend medical school. Then I was told: “Sorry, the country needs pilots, but it needs doctors just as much”.’ He would thus commence his studies at King’s College Newcastle, then part of Durham University, in 1941, qualifying from a shortened wartime course of four years and three months. For him and his classmates it was an extraordinary time. ‘Before I even graduated I had worked for four months as a house officer (junior doctor) due to the shortage of qualified doctors,’ he explains.

Medical career

Even though he experienced an intensive period of study, Lord Walton enjoyed his time at medical school. ‘It was always a wonderful place with such great camaraderie,’ he remembers. ‘The friendships I made in medical school have lasted my entire professional career. I have so many fond memories and the staff were really inspirational. There was some guilt as we weren’t serving in the military though, but I trained and served as a Sergeant in the Senior Training Corps (part of the Home Guard) so it blunted the guilt a little bit.’ After long days of studying, Lord Walton would spend a number of evenings on fire-watching duty as part of his service.

Lord Walton graduated with a first-class Honours degree in 1945, and started work at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI). He was called into the army in 1947, serving first as Embarkation Medical Officer in Glasgow and later Southampton. He would then become Second-in-Command of the Hospital Ship Oxfordshire. ‘That ship was actually involved in the final evacuation of Palestine in 1948,’ he says. Following completion of his military service, he would return to the RVI as Medical Registrar. It was while studying for his medical doctorate that he found himself inspired by three leading physicians: Professor Fred Nattrass, Professor – later Sir – James Spence and Dr Henry Miller. ‘Professor Nattrass was a Professor of Medicine and Sir James was Professor of Paediatrics. It was through the influence of Nattrass that I ultimately decided to become a neurologist,’ he says. Lord Walton would work alongside Professor Nattrass as a research assistant, the pair combining detailed clinical and genetic data, which led to the first major classification of muscular dystrophies.

Lord Walton became a consultant neurologist in 1958 and then Professor of Neurology at the University in 1968. In 1971 he was appointed Dean of Medicine, a position he held for 10 years. In his autobiography The Spice of Life, he described it as the most enjoyable and fruitful decade of his professional career. During this time he became a Knight Bachelor. When news of his knighthood was announced in 1979, he remembers picking up a copy of the Berwick Advertiser, a local newspaper in Northumberland. ‘At the time I had been elected as Captain of Bamburgh Golf Club. The paper’s lead story actually read ‘The Captain of Bamburgh Golf Club has been knighted’,’ he recalls, ‘and that’s when I became Sir John!’

In 1980 he was honoured again when the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, commemorating its 900th anniversary, made him an Honorary Freeman, along with Cardinal Basil Hume (whose father, Sir William, taught Lord Walton as a medical student) and Newcastle United legend Jackie Milburn. ‘Cardinal Hume became a great friend,’ says Lord Walton, ‘We would often disagree on medical research, but we were both lifelong supporters of Newcastle United!’

In addition to these honours, Lord Walton would also hold a number of senior positions from the 1980s onwards. He was elected as President of the British Medical Association (BMA) from 1980 to 1982, President of the General Medical Council from 1982 to 1989 and President of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1984 to 1986. Throughout his career, he would also hold the positions of President of the Association of British Neurologists (1987–88) and President of the World Federation of Neurology (1989–97), among other titles. ‘They used to call me ‘Rent-a- President’!’ he jokes. 

Leaving the North East

In spite of his love for Newcastle and Northumberland, his responsibilities meant spending many nights away from home. ‘One day my dear wife Betty turned to me and said: “Darling, I’ve just been through your diary and I wonder whether you realise that in the last year you’ve left me alone in this house on 169 nights!’’’ So, in 1983, when Lord Walton was approached by the University of Oxford to become Warden of Green College, both he and his wife had a big decision to make. ‘I never intended to leave Newcastle. My wife wasn’t keen to leave the North East either, but with me having so many roles in London at least she knew I’d be home each night, so we went for it.’

Lord Walton would serve as Warden of Green College from 1983 to 1989. ‘We had a happy time living in Oxford, but we kept our house in Detchant as our retreat,’ he says. ‘We eventually returned to the North East, where we happily spent three years together before Betty passed away; I would never have got to where I am without the wonderful support of my wife and family.’ In 1989, during his tenure at Green College, Sir John became Lord John Walton of Detchant. The honour itself came as a surprise. ‘At the time I was very critical of the government’s policy on health, because of their reduced funding for the NHS,’ says Lord Walton. ‘I was even more critical of their funding for universities and research. So I was very surprised when I got a message from the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, telling me she was making me a Lord!’

His first speech in the House of Lords focused on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. ‘It was a baptism of fire,’ he says. ‘I spoke at some length and afterwards nine different peers told me privately that they had changed their minds on the subject after listening to me, so that first debate established my reputation in the Lords.’

Lord Walton has now sat in the House of Lords for over a quarter of a century. ‘It can be extremely challenging,’ he admits, ‘but it’s absolutely fascinating and inspiring; I’ve enjoyed the role immensely. I’ve also chaired a Select Committee and an inquiry which led to the establishment of the National Institute for Health Research.’ More recently, Lord Walton has been involved with the debate surrounding mitochondrial research and the work being led by Professor Doug Turnbull at Newcastle University.

There are so many subjects that could be covered in our chat, but it’s clear that Lord Walton’s research and roles have always been demanding. ‘It’s been an exceptionally busy and hectic life,’ he agrees. ‘But somehow I’ve always coped with the demands and pressures and I have managed a little time to play cricket and golf. The secret, I believe, is to be able to organise one’s time very carefully. I’m significantly less active now though. I may stop speaking in the House of Lords soon – but equally I may have my arm twisted, as I so often do!’

As the interview draws to a close, Lord Walton reaffirms his passion for the North East of England. ‘Newcastle is a great city and I’m very proud of it. I love going to the Sage Gateshead and Newcastle’s Theatre Royal and I still hold a season ticket for Newcastle United too, as well as supporting Durham County Cricket Club.’

In 2014, in recognition of his pioneering research and career, Newcastle University created the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre, which supports its world-leading research in the field. ‘I’m thrilled by the fact that the major muscular dystrophy research unit here in Newcastle is known as the John Walton Centre. And of course, I’m also very proud of the University and the Medical School too. It’s a centre of excellence for medical research in the UK. Its reputation is very well deserved.’

Formal interview over, and casual conversation turns to Lord Walton’s 11 Honorary Doctorates. He remains as modest and anecdotal as ever: ‘I keep telling them – I’m just a simple Geordie lad!’

This feature appeared in Arches, the Newcastle University Alumni magazine.

Lord John Walton of Detchant

published on: 17 August 2015