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How the Chest was Won

August 4, 2013
Jimmy Williamson

Professor Jimmy Williamson, courtesy of BBC. He looks a bit Sunday-best and serious here. In real life he was warm, genial and great company

Professor  Jimmy Williamson, who died in June, was the last surviving member of the Edinburgh group which found the first 100% cure for tuberculosis.

In 1954 he was the last consultant to join Sir John Crofton’s team in Edinburgh. As a junior doctor he saw his wages double with he advent of the NHS and he had two notable celebrity patients George Orwell at Hairmyres Hospital and Bill McLaren, the future rugby commentator at East Fortune Hospital.

By that time three drugs were available – streptomycin, isoniazid and PAS. Many people were cured but thousands also developed resistance to individual drugs, relapsed and died. The Edinburgh group’s approach was revolutionary using all three available TB drugs from the outset.

Rising TB notifications in Edinburgh were halved between 1954 and 1957, a feat not achieved anywhere before or since. Waiting lists disappeared and the epidemic was halted in its tracks.  Jimmy was technical director of  a mass x-ray campaign in 1958 which with enormous support from newspapers and broadcasters rooted out residual TB in the city. Here’s how British Pathe covered it:

Many did not believe the Edinburgh group’s results.  When Jimmy presented a paper at a conference in Istanbul, all the American delegates walked out.  An international trial was arranged which used the Edinburgh model as a protocol. It became the gold standard for TB treatment in the developed world. Landmark trials by the Medical Research Council offered affordable treatments for developing countries.

There is much more on this in Sir John’s memoirs, newly published by his daughter Alison and son-in-law David and available here.  I discuss this further in this piece in the Scottish Review.

Jimmy’s career, particularly in geriatrics, the speciality he did so much to create, is  well told in Colin Currie’s lovely Scotsman obituary. It also refers to the ruse Bernard Crick played on Jimmy to ensure his recollection of George Orwell was based on fact.

But best always to listen the man himself.  Here are two interview clips previously available on the NHS 60th anniversary website – the first on Orwell  

And the second on Highland nurses who succumbed to TB 

Nurses from rural Ireland and Wales working in the the UK suffered exactly the same fate. Anne Mac Lellan discusses this in detail in this compelling podcast.

The best account of Orwell as a patient is by Hilda Bastian

Also worth a look is my Reuters Foundation study (inspired and supported by Jimmy and Sir John) and available at the RCPE

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