Dr John Michael Walshe – 100 Not Out

Dr John Walshe

Born in Kensington on 24 April 1920, the younger son of the leading neurologist, Sir Francis Walshe, John Michael Walshe was educated at The Beaumont College, Windsor, before taking up a place to read medicine in 1939 at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. From here he returned to London to train at University College Hospital, serving in the Middle East as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corp. By the mid-1950s he had proved himself a gifted doctor, gaining a Fulbright Fellowship to the Boston City Hospital in America, during which time he made a ground-breaking discovery into an effective treatment for the then little known and untreatable metabolic, autosomnal recessive illness called Wilson’s disease (hepato-lenticular degeneration).

Wilson’s disease had first been documented in 1912 by Dr Samuel Kinnier Wilson, also a leading neurologist working at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases (now the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery) in Queen Square, London. The symptoms of the illness were similar to Parkinson’s disease, but much worse, and patients with the condition inevitably died a slow and unpleasant death. It wasn’t until 1948 that Professor John Cumings, a former junior of Samuel Kinnier Wilson’s, discovered that the cause of the disorder was due to the accumulation of excess copper ingested through food and deposited in the liver and brain. Prof. Cumings recommended treatment with an intra-muscular drug called British Anti-Lewisite (aka BAL or dimercaprol), which had been developed by Professor Peters and his team in Oxford at the beginning of the Second World War to protect against a chemical attack.  Although effective and still used occasionally today, this drug was very painful for patients to endure, so could only be administered intermittently.

While in his scholarship year in Boston, Dr Walshe, one day, had an idea—one that came to him through the ether!  He had noted a few years earlier that one of the breakdown products found in patients taking penicillin was a molecule known as penicillamine. His lightbulb moment came when he realised that penicillamine had the right chemical formula to combine with copper. He asked his American colleagues if it were possible to obtain 2 grams of the compound and when they were able to oblige, he promptly took one gram himself. To his great delight, he woke up the following morning feeling absolutely fine! He then gave the other gram to a recently diagnosed Wilson’s patient and was delighted when he, too, survived and just as importantly, excreted large quantities of copper in his urine! Dr Walshe returned to the UK late in 1955 with a further 10 grams of penicillamine and, through the contacts of his father, found a 16 year old newly diagnosed patient to try it on. Bedbound in a London hospital, shaking uncontrollably, unable to walk, talk, eat or dress herself, the patient slowly started to recover. The American Journal of Medicine reported its success in October 1956 and penicillamine then officially became the first oral chelation therapy available to treat Wilson’s disease.

The following year, Dr Walshe took up a Cambridge University post in the Department of Investigative Medicine and an honorary consultant’s position at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.  There he remained for a further thirty years during which time he developed two further chelating treatments, the first in the late 1960s called trientine dihydrochloride, and the second in the 1980s called ammonium tetrathiomolybdate. By the time he retired from Addenbrooke’s in 1987, he had a patient base of over 320 and was recognised as the world’s leading authority on Wilson’s disease. Not content with a life of leisure nor pursuing his interests in Gothic architecture and mediaeval stained glass, he took on a monthly clinic at the Middlesex Hospital where he continued to treat many of his former patients and even some new ones, until he was 80.

Widowed in 2011 after a happy 55 year marriage to Ann, he continues to live in the family home in Hemingford Grey. The late 17th century house, which was bought in 1958, lies 2 miles beyond the statutory distance within which employees of the University were required to live at that time. Dr Walshe was granted a special dispensation for having pushed the boundaries! But pushing boundaries has been commonplace for him, writing his last published medical paper when he was ninety-one. He was looking forward to celebrating his 100th birthday at home with daughters, Susan and Clare, and grandsons Simon, Oliver and Ben, before attending a more formal birthday celebration at the beginning of May hosted by the The Wilson’s Disease Support Group—UK of which he is President. Sadly, because of the current situation, plans have had to be changed, but it is hoped that a party can be arranged as soon as restrictions are lifted. It will be attended by his former medical colleagues and many of his former patients, whose lives he has saved. The icing on the cake will be the attendance of Shirley, his first ever patient, who sixty-five years after starting penicillamine, remains in good health today.

By Valerie Wheater, WDSG-UK