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Biographical entry Walker, Robert Milnes (1903 - 1985)

CBE 1964; MRCS 1926; FRCS 1928; MB,BS London 1926; MS 1927; LRCP 1926; Hon FACS 1962; Hon FRCS Ed 1971.

2 August 1903
25 August 1985
General surgeon


Robert Milnes Walker was born on 2 August 1903, the younger brother of John Henry (qv). He too was educated at Oundle School, where he became public schools gymnastic champion, and at University College Hospital where he graduated MB, BS (gold medal) in 1926. He was one of the last house surgeons to Wilfred Trotter and obtained his MS (gold medal) in 1927 and his FRCS in 1928. There followed a period during which he was assistant to the surgical unit at University College Hospital and he made visits to surgical clinics in Europe and North America. He was appointed consultant surgeon to the Royal Hospital, Wolverhampton, in 1931. He soon demonstrated his pioneering qualities and mastery of new techniques when he recorded the third successful pneumonectomy in this country. He was appointed group adviser to the EMS Midland Region before the outbreak of war. In 1940 evacuation of students from London brought those at the Middlesex Hospital to Wolverhampton and it was then that he realised his vocation for teaching and academic surgery. He published articles on numerous topics including pneumonectomy, mediastinal lipomas, peritoneoscopy and intestinal diverticulosis and in 1944 was appointed to the Court of Examiners.

It was unique, but not surprising to his colleagues, that in 1946 he was translated from a regional hospital to the first full-time Chair of Surgery at Bristol University. He succeeded distinguished holders such as Hey Groves and Rendle Short, but he inherited a department conspicuous only by its absence. With seemingly unlimited energy he built up a department which rapidly acquired both a national and international reputation. It was in the treatment of portal hypertension, both in developing shunt operations and in devising the operation of oesophageal transection, that he took a leading role and from far and wide patients came for treatment and surgeons for instruction. His department researched in the problems of arterial grafting, Raynaud's disease and of open heart surgery. His teaching was clear and concise, all situations were approached with the minimum of fuss and his unassuming kindliness was appreciated by patients and all those who worked for him.

Although so involved with the heavy work-load of his department, Milnes Walker was Dean of the Faculty from 1951 to 1954, member of Council of the College from 1953 to 1969 and Vice-President 1966-68, member of the Medical Research Council 1959-63, President of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland 1961, President of the Surgical Research Society 1962-64, Rock Carling Fellow 1965, editor of the Medical Annual 1954-57 and member of the medical sub-committee of the University Grants Committee 1959-67. He took a special interest in the Surgical Club of South-West England, attending all their meetings throughout the south-west region and bringing his wisdom and counsel to their discussions. It was his insistence that changed the original elitist Bath and Bristol Surgical Club into one that embraced all surgeons in the region.

Following his retirement from the Chair of Surgery in 1964, he became director of the South Western Regional Cancer Records Bureau from 1965 to 1971 and in 1968 he also became director of surgical studies at the College. His many contributions to surgery were rewarded by election to the honorary Fellowship of the American College of Surgeons in 1962 and of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1971. He was awarded the CBE in 1964 and the gold medal of the College in 1972. In 1974 he was elected Master of the Worshipful Company of Barber-Surgeons to which his ancestor William Walker had been admitted in 1657. His book Barbers and Barber-Surgeons: a history of the Barbers and Barber-Surgeons' Companies, written jointly with the late Jessie Dobson, was published in 1979. In 1965 the Milnes Walker Surgical Travelling Club was formed by those who had trained in his department and he often travelled with them, the last time in 1980 to Bologna when he was the first to climb the many hundreds of steps to the top of the great mediaeval tower.

In 1931 he married Grace Anne McCormick and they had two sons and four daughters. Three are medically qualified and one is a surgeon. Throughout almost the whole of his career he enjoyed a supremely happy, full and Christian life. Their homes in Bristol and later in Kintbury were visited by the many friends that he had made worldwide. Robert himself was an intensively modest and shy man, but he was endowed with enormous physical and mental energy which showed outside surgery in his hobbies of mountaineering, bird watching, gardening, carpentry and the collection of books on the history of medicine and surgery. He bore a long illness with stoicism and cheerfulness. He died on 25 August 1985, survived by his wife and family.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 27 August 1985; Brit med J 1985, 2, 747-748 with portrait; Lancet 1985, 2, 622 with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England