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Biographical entry Watt, Sir James (1914 - 2009)

KBE 1975; C St J 1972; FRCS and MRCS 1955; MB BS Durham 1938; MS 1949; MD Newcastle 1972; Hon DCh Newcastle 1978; FICS 1963; FRCP 1975; Hon FRCS Edinburgh 1976.

19 August 1914
Morpeth, Northumberland, UK
28 December 2009
General surgeon


Sir James Watt was medical director general of the Royal Navy. During his long and distinguished career he was a delightful, scholarly contributor to the Travelling Surgical Society, with which he first went as a guest on the club's visit to Heidelberg in May 1965 when he was a surgeon commander. He was promoted to surgeon rear admiral and became the first dean of naval medicine and founder of the Institute of Naval Medicine based at Alverstoke, Gosport. By 1972, he had been promoted to surgeon vice admiral and became medical director general (naval), a post he held with distinction until 1977, being knighted in 1975.

James Watt was born in Morpeth, Northumberland, on 19 August 1914. His parents were Sarah and Thomas Watt, a teacher and businessman respectively, the latter distantly related to the engineer James Watt. A great grandfather married a descendant of John Knox of Edinburgh and an uncle was a director of Eastman Kodak, USA, and was responsible for the early development of colour photography. James attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Morpeth and was awarded the governor's prize in two successive years for declamation, perhaps an augur for future lecturing.

Qualifying in 1938 from Durham University, James was a house surgeon at Ashington Hospital and then a resident medical officer at the Princess Mary Maternity Hospital in Newcastle.

He served during the Second World War with the Royal Navy. From January 1941 to September 1942, he was a surgeon lieutenant commander on the cruiser HMS Emerald in the Far East until the fall of Singapore. His next posting was on North Atlantic convoys aboard the destroyer HMS Roxborough, which had many casualties on which he operated, being held up by an orderly, during one of the worst storms in living memory. After a short respite in February 1944 on HMS Asbury at the Royal Navy base in New Jersey, USA, James returned to the Far East aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Arbiter from 1944 to 1947, during which time he was mentioned in despatches.

Following his demobilisation, in 1947 he returned to the Royal Victoria Hospital as a surgical registrar. Two years later, he then returned to the Royal Navy and served on HM hospital ship Maine during the Korean War, and later as a surgical specialist to the Royal Naval Hospital in Hong Kong from 1953 to 1955, the year in which he obtained the FRCS. The next year he became a consultant in surgery to RN Hospital, Plymouth, then Malta (1961) and Haslar (1963), before being appointed the first joint professor of naval surgery to the Royal College of Surgeons of England and RN Hospital Haslar (1965 to 1969).

He was made dean of naval medicine and medical officer in charge of the Institute of Naval Medicine from 1969 to 1972, and was then director general (naval) from 1972 to 1977.

During his career, he published widely on subjects as diverse as burns, cancer chemotherapy, peptic ulceration and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Showing an early interest in the history of medicine, many articles and lectures followed in this field and involved much painstaking research, his scholarship being evident to many learned societies. These included a biography of James Ramsay (1733-1789), whom he described as a naval surgeon, naval chaplain and morning star of the Anti-Slavery Movement in his guest lecture to the Travelling Surgical Society in 1992 at RNH Haslar. In 1995, in Israel, he lectured on mediaeval pilgrims and Crusaders and their bequests to surgery in a presentation which was both erudite and humorous.

He was a member of the British Society for Surgery of the Hand, the International Society for Burns Injuries and was a corresponding member of the Surgical Research Society from 1966 to 1977. He supported many other associations and societies, including the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland. A fellow of the Medical Society of London, he became a member of the council from 1976 and was president in the year 1980 to 1981. He gave the Lettsomian lectures in 1979 and was elected a trustee. He was responsible for the re-organisation of the library and selling the valuable books to the Wellcome Institute, thereby guaranteeing the future of the Society. In 2009 he was elected an honorary fellow, a rare honour.

James Watt was made an honorary freeman of the Worshipful Company of Barbers in 1978. He delivered the prestigious Thomas Vicary lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1974. A fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, he was president (its 91st) during the active rebuilding programme (1982 to 1984), and was made an honorary fellow in 1998 for his many major contributions.

His administrative flair and commitment were recognised in several spheres, including the environmental medicine research committee. He was a governor of Epsom College from 2000, becoming its vice president. From 1983 he was vice-president of the Society for Nautical Research and in 1996 he was president of the Smeatonian Society of History at the University of Calgary, where he had been made an honorary member in 1978. His eclectic interests resulted in over 100 publications on surgery, burns and history, especially of nautical medicine. He edited and contributed to four books including Starving sailors: the influence of nutrition upon naval and maritime history (London, National Maritime Museum, 1981) and Talking health: conventional and complementary approaches (Royal Society of Medicine Services, 1988), wrote five articles in the Dictionary of National Biography and three chapters in a two volume book Meta incognita, a discourse of discovery: Martin Frobisher's Arctic expedititions, 1576-1578 (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1999), which won the Canadian prize for maritime history in 2000. He served on the editorial board of the British Journal of Surgery from 1966 to 1977.

Researches on Nelson took him on regular trips to libraries in Paris and culminated in a lecture to the Worshipful Company of Barbers in 2005, on surgery at the Battle of Trafalgar - surely a major undertaking for a man approaching his 90th year, celebrated in due style by the section of history of the Royal Society of Medicine. The published version entitled 'Surgery at Trafalgar' makes fascinating reading in The Mariner's Mirror of May 2005 (Vol.91 No.2, pp.266-283).

Over the years, James Watt was visiting professor in history to the University of Calgary (1985), visiting fellow at the Australian National University, Canberra (1986), and foundation lecturer to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1990). His historical contributions earned him election as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Throughout his long, full, life James Watt was an active practising Christian, supporting not only local church activities but also the council of reference of the Christian Medical Fellowship. Heavily involved with Christian activities in the Royal Navy, he was a founder member of the Naval Christian Fellowship, which has been extended to navies throughout the world, a lasting blessing to naval personnel and their families. His private devotional life remained paramount in his daily living. He was president of the Royal Naval Lay Readers Society (1974 to 1983), the Institute of Religion and Medicine (1989 to 1991), and ECHO International Health Services (1983 to 2003), which provides financial support to health care institutions and initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. He was vice-president of the Churches' Council of Healing from 1987 and a trustee of the Marylebone Centre Trust. His writings included What is wrong with Christian healing? (Churches' Council for Health & Healing, 1993), and also The church, medicine and the New Age (1995). He thought that the United Kingdom perhaps needed a Wesleyan revival. His many friends throughout the world crossed denominations, and he was widely admired by many Jewish thinkers.

He remained unmarried. His relaxation came from music and walking, though age took its toll on the latter. He showed a keen interest in tennis and rugby. From his long-time home at Wimbledon, James retired to live on the Stockbridge Road in Winchester. Having found this too hilly for walking with his failing heart, in 2009 he moved to a flat in Otterbourne, also in Hampshire. He became unwell before Christmas 2009 and was admitted to hospital with a minor stroke, from which he made an initial recovery but died some 10 days later on 28 December 2009. He will be remembered fondly not merely for his high achievements, but also as a self-effacing somewhat ascetic scholar who devoted his life to his chosen commitments.

Alan Green
Tim Williams
Norman Kirby

The Royal College of Surgeons of England