Dr John Wedgwood (1920 - 2007) Post 1

John Wedgwood was in the forefront of those who set new standards for the treatment of the old and infirm in hospitals.

His work in this field began in 1960, when he became Consultant Physician in Geriatrics for the West Suffolk Hospital Area. The centre of his operations was St Mary's Hospital at Bury St Edmunds, an infirmary ward attached to the town's old workhouse.

At that period geriatrics barely existed as a recognised medical discipline, while conditions at St Mary's scarcely deserved the epithet "Victorian". Some 200 patients were stuffed into every nook and cranny, with the beds practically touching one another.

Bedpans were washed in the bath. In the old workhouse alongside, the mentally subnormal mingled with criminals on probation, while other inmates were present for no better reason than that they had been born there.

Doggedly determined, modestly charming and unrelentingly industrious, Wedgwood lobbied every possible health authority and committee until he succeeded in securing new buildings and improved facilities. Much was due to his unshakeable belief in the fundamental good nature of everyone he encountered. "Things are easy," he found, "once you talk to people and once they trust you and once you trust them."

Wedgwood was always eager to give credit to others. His own influence, however, played a vital part in the development of new attitudes towards the treatment of long-term debility. The practice of geriatric medicine ceased to be, literally, a dead end, and became an exercise in hope.

For Wedgwood believed that geriatric patients should be approached in the same way as younger patients. That meant mobilising the resources of the National Health Service to establish distinct diagnosis and prescription for each separate case. In consequence, conditions previously attributed simply to senility were discovered to be specific illnesses which could be effectively treated. Sometimes patients could even go home.

Wedgwood's background in general medicine and his skill in diagnosis proved a particular source of strength. So did his organisational skills. At Bury St Edmunds he established a day centre, and did all he could to ensure that the contributions of specialists - psychiatrists, physiologists - were co-ordinated with the work of GPs and social workers.

However busy, he never allowed himself to be tied exclusively to the hospital. "If you go out and see people in their homes," he considered, "you realise how nice they are, what difficulties they are working under, and what the GPs' difficulties are, which are tremendous."

To ensure that this approach took root, Wedgwood set up a postgraduate teaching centre at the general hospital in Bury St Edmunds, and forwarded research into dementia. These initiatives also had the benefit of encouraging the recruitment of able staff.

Eager to spread his ideas, in 1968 Wedgwood jumped at the opportunity to start a geriatric department at the Middlesex Hospital in London. In particular he relished the chance to teach students during their early training, and not simply, as at Bury St Edmunds, at postgraduate level. It suited his approach, too, that he was able to instruct pupils drawn from every branch of the hospital's activities. At the same time he was able to help establish what was only the second post-war geriatric hospital in London, at Athlone House, Hampstead. Once more, too, he was involved in the institution and running of a day hospital, on a lovely site at the top of Hampstead Lane.

Yet, while the Middlesex Hospital afforded an admirable environment in which to practise his creed, Wedgwood was aware that no principle should be applied with rigid insensibility. Ideally, the old should be cared for at home; in reality, however, this was often neither practical nor medically appropriate. While it might be a fine aim to get the old out of bed, Wedgwood could not but notice that, by the mid-1960s, there were many patients staggering around or sitting slumped in a chair, who really should not have been up at all.

In 1980 he took up the post of medical director at what was then called the Royal Hospital for Incurables at Putney. (It is now the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability.) For the first time he was obliged to act as his own fundraiser, helping to generate £3.5 million.

Under his leadership the Putney hospital set up a new building for therapy and research, with a lecture theatre. "I am more and more convinced," he declared towards the end of his career, "that teaching is absolutely vital to everything you do." He also established another building for rehabilitation, and an engineering workshop for making specially adapted wheelchairs. In the tradition of his work at Bury St Edmunds he also started a day centre. Finally, just before retiring in 1986, he set up a new unit for dealing with brain injuries, with an emphasis on means of bringing patients out of coma.

Very few have achieved as much as John Wedgwood for those unable to help themselves. He himself, however, did not see any especial virtue in his choice of career: it simply appeared to him as the best means of leading a satisfying life. High-mindedness had been bred into him by a family whose history forcibly bears out Voltaire's dictum that English society resembles English beer: "froth at the top; dregs at the bottom; and the middle excellent."

The Wedgwoods had been potters ever since 1612, when Gilbert Wedgwood moved to Burslem after marrying an heiress to property in that town. Four generations later Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) developed a cream-coloured earthenware which sold so well that in 1769 he was able to open a new factory named Etruria between Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme.

A Unitarian, Josiah was prominent in the campaign to abolish slavery, as well as concerned to improve conditions for workers in his factory. He married his cousin Sarah and had seven surviving children. The brains and moral urgency also survived. He became the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who followed his example in marrying a Wedgwood cousin.

In every generation brains and achievement proliferated. Aside from the Darwins, Josiah's direct descendants include the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, the historian CV Wedgwood, and Hugh Massingberd, creator of the modern obituary in The Daily Telegraph. Distinguished mathematicians, scientists and engineers crowd the family tree. Members of the Keynes, Huxley and Trevelyan families married into the Wedgwood-Darwin nexus. The Eugenics Society expressed its approval. Yet the Wedgwoods also stuck to their family trade, right down to Josiah Wedgwood V (1899-1968).

John Wedgwood, his son, was born on September 28 1919. His mother Dorothy suffered a severe attack of polio the following year, yet would have another boy in 1924 and a daughter in 1926. She was an early advocate of birth control, while John's father addressed himself to the evils of inherited wealth. They had met as school fellows at Bedales, and lived a life of progressive virtue in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

In 1928 the family business called Josiah Wedgwood back to Staffordshire. He took over as managing director in 1930, and restored the fortunes of the business, notably by moving the premises from Etruria to a new purpose-built factory at Barlaston, where manufacture began in 1940.

The move to Staffordshire brought John closer to his Wedgwood relations, including his grandfather, a politician who had served in Ramsay MacDonald's cabinet and was subsequently raised to the peerage by his friend Winston Churchill in 1942.

In common with all young members of the family John spent several weeks going through the works, and even made his own tea set, from which he learned that design is best left to professionals. He also learned, however, to respect hard work, and developed keen affection for the workers who showed him such kindness.

In general the Wedgwoods eschewed the great public schools. John was sent to Abbotsholme in Derbyshire, and remembered with gratitude the strong emphasis placed on arts and crafts, which made him skilled with his hands. It was another virtue of the school that moneys intended for new lavatories were diverted to a library extension. John acquired a lifelong passion for reading, particularly in history.

After Abbotsholme he spent a year in London, theoretically studying economics, in reality devouring textbooks on psychiatry.

In 1938 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge (much favoured by the Wedgwoods), to read Medicine. Moving on to Guy's Hospital in 1940 he qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1943, and immediately entered the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

For the next two years, Surgeon-Lieutenant Wedgwood served in the Mediterranean and Far East. In July 1945, just before the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, Squirrel, the minesweeper in which he was posted, was blown up off Phuket Island, Thailand. Wedgwood suffered serious injuries to his right leg and back, the effects of which never left him.

Incapable now of standing for long periods, he abandoned his hopes of becoming a surgeon, and took a job as a medical registrar, first in Colchester and then (1948-56) at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. In 1949 he was asked to make a study of the local authority infirmary wards at Chesterton, which first encouraged an interest in geriatrics.

For some time, however, his love of clinical work kept him loyal to general medicine, and in 1949 he became a member of the Royal Society of Physicians. When he did specialise, it was in cardiology. From 1954 to 1956 he took on additional responsibility in the cardiac department at the London Hospital, before becoming senior medical registrar in the cardiological department at Barts.

Wedgwood's subsequent career in geriatric and disability medicine was recognised in 1987 by his appointment as CBE. In that year he became chairman of the Royal Surgical Aid Society (now AgeCare), a charity which specialises in providing accommodation for older people who fall outside the age and income limits set by local authorities.

Among many appointments and honours, Wedgwood was treasurer and chairman of the executive committee at the British Geriatrics Society; he also headed the editorial board which produced the society's journal, Age and Ageing.

Outside medicine he served on the council of the Royal Society of Arts from 1981 to 1985. He was also immensely proud to be a non-executive director of Wedgwood from 1967 (when the company went public) to 1987.

John Wedgwood married first, in 1943 (dissolved 1971), Margaret Mason; they had three sons and two daughters. He married secondly, in 1972, Jo Tamlyn (née Ripsher), with whom he found great happiness.

From The Telegraph (September, 2007)