The Daily Telegraph
Doctor who revolutionised the training of general practitioners
JOHN WALKER, who has died aged 93, was Professor of General Practice, Family and Community Medicine at the University of Newcastle; like many of his era he was stung by the remarks of Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, who said general practice was where those who fell off the consultant ladder landed. He was determined to improve this image.
In the early 1960s a survey of medical schools had shown that there was very little, if any, structured teaching. The impression was that general practice was an afterthought in which students in their final year had very short attachments in an unstructured and unsupervised way, where they were shown something of the peculiarities of general practice with little participation by staff of the medical school.
In 1964, as part of a new integrated experiment in medical education, all students in Newcastle were exposed to family and community medicine soon after their arrival in medical school. A group of enthusiastic local GPS were recruited and all students had regular visits to GP surgeries.
They were also given a family project in which they were introduced to a pregnant mother whom they had to follow for two years. They were expected to discuss the baby with the GP and health visitors. This was hugely popular at a time when most medical schools were following a traditional curriculum of only basic sciences for the first two years with no clinical contact.
By 1967 the General Medical Council had recommended that all medical students should follow a similar model with early clinical exposure to patients. This depended on a strong partnership between the university department and a select group of GPS, and John Walker was instrumental in its success.
There was also concern about the postgraduate training of GPS. Those going on to be consultants had a well organised training programme, including exams, but those going into general practice could spend one year in hospital posts and go straight into practice with no further training for the next 40 years.
The idea of structured training for GPS emerged in the northern region, and
this came under the auspices of the newly formed Royal College of General Practitioners. Walker was at the heart of organising examinations for GPS and for many years was chairman of the RCGP exams committee.
Initially exams were optional, but they were soon mandatory. The public today can expect a GP who is properly trained and up to date, and Walker was at the root of these developments.
John Hilton Walker was born in Newcastle on April 28 1928 to Arthur, a pharmacist in the Co-op, and Effie, a teacher. He started his education at Heaton Grammar School and was evacuated to Whitehaven during the war, after which his parents bought a chemist’s shop in Allendale, at the foot of the north Pennines.
He finished his education at Alston Grammar School, even higher in the Pennines. The family embraced Allendale life, and it was there that he met his future wife, June. After National Service in the Navy, largely based in Scotland, he studied Medicine at Durham, graduating in 1954.
He became a trainee GP in Rothbury with Dr Rex Armstrong, grandfather of the broadcaster Alexander Armstrong. Between 1959 and 1963 he was a lecturer in General Practice in Edinburgh and returned to Newcastle to found the Department of Family and Community Medicine. He was a popular teacher of medical students and of trainee GPS.
Walker had numerous interests including skiing, vintage cars, musical theatre and jazz, and was known to have a song for every occasion. He was always cheerful, immaculately dressed with a genuine interest in everyone he met. He is survived by June, his wife of 64 years, and their three daughters.
John Walker, born April 28 1928, died July 4 2021