Joseph Sheldon

Joseph Harold Sheldon, CBE, MD, FRCP, (1893- 1972), was based at Royal Hospital, Wolverhampton where his initial interest was haemochromatosis, which was the subject of his Bradshaw lecture to the RCP in 1934. He was a modest, unassuming man with considerable capacity for research and was a gifted teacher. He held his outpatient sessions on market days so that patients could visit him more easily. He examined for the MRCP and considered elderly patients to be ‘a mine of interest to the observer with the merest tincture of curiosity’.

His interest in old age began with his seminal study of older people living in the community in Wolverhampton. It is a reflection of the period of the study that he used the ration card register to locate his sample. The results were published in 1948 as The Social History of Old Age and were the basis of his F E Williams lecture to the RCP (London) in 1949. He was a vice president of the Medical Society for the Care of the Elderly (as the BGS was once called) and was one of the first to distinguish between official old age, when pensions were paid and biological old age, which might occur 5-10 years later. He was elected President of the International Association of Gerontology (IAG) in 1954 and gave his presidential address, The Social Philosophy of Old Age, in London at the Third Congress of the IAG.

His other remarkable work was his report on Birmingham’s regional geriatric services. It revealed a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. The photographic appendix is well worth looking at if only to make one realise how well off we are today. Hospital buildings, some of which were over 200 years old and one was nearly 800 years old, were unfit for their present purpose having been originally been designed as ‘human warehouses’. Many lacked lifts to the upper floors and some could only be reached by external stairs. Sheldon found it quite an experience to discover the same room used for washing bedpans and domestic crockery, to see bedpans stored for the night in the patients’ bath, that nurses had to queue for the same toilet as the male patients, while the mortuary shared its accommodation with the piggery. Not surprisingly the report aroused considerable ire in the medical and national press.

Michael Denham

Past President of the BGS