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Biographical entry Watkins, Eric Sidney (1928 - 2012)

OBE 2002; BSc Liverpool 1949; MB ChB 1952; MD 1956; FRCS Edin 1969; Hon FRCS 2008.

6 September 1928
12 September 2012


Eric Sidney ('Sid') Watkins, professor of neurosurgery at the London Hospital Medical School, transformed safety standards in Formula One motor racing. He was born in Liverpool on 6 September 1928, and won scholarships to Prescot Grammar School and then Liverpool University, where he read medicine. He qualified with a BSc in physiology in 1949 and with his MB ChB in 1952.

He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps for his National Service, and was posted to West Africa, where he researched heat exhaustion in a physiological unit. After working in general surgery in Weston-Super-Mare, he trained in neurosurgery at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, under the American surgeon Joe Pennybaker.

In 1962 he was offered his own chair of neurosurgery at Syracuse, New York, USA. Sid Watkins first became involved in motor racing when he was invited to join the medical team at Watkins Glen, then home of the US Grand Prix circuit, located nearby in New York state.

He returned to the UK in 1969, becoming professor of neurosurgery at what was then the London Hospital Medical School. In 1978 Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive of Formula One, asked him to develop a medical service for the sport and 'Prof', as he was known to the drivers and race officials, soon became a well-respected presence at Grand Prix across the world. Among other measures, he pushed for stronger seats, collapsible steering columns and safer racing suits for drivers. His lifesaving efforts were often hands-on: on several occasions he pulled drivers from their crashed vehicles. He wrote about his experiences in his book Life at the limit: triumph and tragedy in Formula One (London, Macmillan, 1996) and retired from the sport in 2011.

At the London Hospital he carried out pioneering work on neurostimulation to relieve the tremor of Parkinsonism. He also co-wrote two atlases, of the anatomy of the thalamus and of the human brainstem (A stereotaxic atlas of the human thalamus and adjacent structures: a variability study [Baltimore, Williams and Wilkins Company, 1969], Stereotaxic atlas of the human brainstem and cerebellar nuclei: a variability study [New York, Raven Press, c.1978]). In 1992 he co-founded the Brain and Spine Foundation, a charity for people affected by brain and spine disorders.

Sid Watkins died from a heart attack on 12 September 2012 in London. He was 84. He was survived by his wife Susan, four sons and two daughters.

Sarah Gillam

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Telegraph 13 September 2012 - accessed 4 November 2014; The Independent 14 September 2014 - accessed 4 November 2014; The New York Times 15 September 2012 - accessed 4 November 2014; The Lancet 2012 380 (9855) 1734 - accessed 4 November 2014; formula1blog F1 Biography: Professor Sid Watkins - accessed 4 November 2014].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England