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Lord Walton of Detchant, medical pioneer

University pays respects to eminent neurologist

Published on: 22 April 2016

Tributes have been paid to Lord John Walton of Detchant, a medical pioneer in muscular dystrophy and champion of Newcastle University, as his death is announced at the age of 93.

Amongst many national and international achievements, honours and awards, his esteemed research and career were recognised in 2014 with the creation of the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre at Newcastle University, which supports world-leading research in this field.

Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University, Professor Chris Brink paid tribute saying: “Newcastle University mourns the death of Lord Walton, but we celebrate his life and achievements as an alumnus, professor and Dean, a mentor of many, an example to all, and a lifelong friend and supporter of the University.

“John, as he insisted on being called, could till the end amaze and impress us with his clear thinking, eloquence, wit, wisdom, knowledge and experience. He will be sadly missed, but long remembered, with gratitude, affection and admiration.”

Professor Chris Day, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University's Faculty of Medical Sciences said: "Lord Walton remains the longest serving Dean of the Medical School at Newcastle University and I am extremely proud to have succeeded him. Long after he stood down from this position he remained a staunch supporter of the Medical School and its activities most notably through his position in the House of Lords. He played a significant role in us getting General Medical Council approval for our Medical School in Malaysia and in supporting the parliamentary approval of our mitochondrial work.

"On a personal note he was a great source of advice and support, particularly in my first few years in post and became a close personal friend. His great sense of humour and gift for public speaking lit up many a formal and informal occasion. He will be sorely missed by all of the extended medical community in Newcastle."

Professor Hanns Lochmuller from the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Reseach Centre said: “With his seminal work 50 years ago at Newcastle, Lord Walton was a founding father of myology, the field of clinical muscle research.

“Over many decades, he has given his brilliant thought and kind support to generations of clinicians, researchers and patients with neuromuscular conditions inspiring many of us in Newcastle and elsewhere. We are deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”

Lord Walton of Detchant

Early life

Born in 1922 in Rowlands Gill, a mining village on the River Derwent, John Walton was the son of two schoolteachers and grandson of a miner.

At the age of 18 he was denied entry into the RAF on the grounds that his impending medical education was crucial to Britain’s World War II efforts and so later commenced his studies at King’s College Newcastle, then part of Durham University, in 1941.

Qualifying from a shortened wartime course, 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 then becoming Second-in-Command of the Hospital Ship Oxfordshire.

Following completion of his military service, Lord Walton returned 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. Lord Walton would later work alongside Professor Nattrass, 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 Newcastle University in 1968. In 1971 he was appointed Dean of Medicine, a position he held for 10 years and 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 and became Sir John.

His love for Newcastle and Northumberland were never forgotten and in 1980 he was honoured again when the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, commemorating its 900th anniversary, made him an Honorary Freeman. 

Medical recognition

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.

Lord Walton served as Warden of Green College from 1983 to 1989 and in 1989, during his tenure at Green College, Sir John became Lord John Walton of Detchant.

His first speech in the House of Lords focused on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which established his reputation in the Lords. He would sit in the House of Lords for over a quarter of a century. Most recently, Lord Walton was involved with the debate surrounding mitochondrial research and the work being led by Professor Doug Turnbull at Newcastle University.

Lord Walton had an undeniable passion for the North East. A regular theatre goer and supporter of the arts, he supported Durham County Cricket Club and held a season ticket for his beloved Newcastle United.

He leaves three children and extended family. The University is flying its flag at half-mast in recognition of his contribution to University life. 


Lord Walton receiving gold medal from Royal Society of Medicine

Service of Thanksgiving

A Service of Thanksgiving for his life will be held at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, Northumberland, on Thursday 5 May at 1.30pm

At a later date in October (to be arranged), the family hope to hold a Service of Remembrance at St Mary’s Westminster, London.  Further details of this service will follow in due course.

In accordance with Lord Walton’s wishes, the family would request no flowers, but donations instead either to Muscular Dystrophy UK or to Brain Tumour Research which may be sent to the funeral home.


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