Pioneer of cure for tuberculosis dies

Jimmy Williamson found being a pre-NHS GP very grim. Picture: BBC
Jimmy Williamson found being a pre-NHS GP very grim. Picture: BBC
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A DOCTOR who treated the author George Orwell and was the last surviving member of the Scottish team who pioneered the cure for tuberculosis has died at the age of 92.

Professor Jimmy Williamson, the son of a bank manager, was born in Wishaw and harboured ambitions to enter medicine from a young age. After attending Wishaw Academy, he studied medicine at Glasgow University, where he won several prizes.

After graduating, he worked as a junior doctor in Glasgow before moving to England to work as a GP for two years.

Friend and colleague Dr Colin Currie, senior lecturer and honorary consultant in geriatric medicine at Edinburgh University and NHS Lothian, said: “This was in the days before the NHS, when general practice was very low quality and commercially driven. He was a very ethically-minded person and he found it very grim. He spent two years there and I think he was very glad to return to Scotland.”

In 1948, Prof Williamson was working at Hairmyres Hospital, near Glasgow, when he was called to treat a man named Eric Blair, for infectious chronic tuberculosis. Prof Williamson was unaware at the time that his patient was better known under his pen name of George Orwell.

Orwell, who was then 44 and writing his best known work – 1984 – became the first person in Scotland to be treated with streptomycin, which was unlicensed in Britain and deemed too expensive for the post-war government.

In an interview last year, Prof Williamson said: “I’d never heard of him. Then one of the nurses told me he was a well-known writer. I remember he was in a double room and he would be sitting up in bed with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth typing away most of the time. He smoked almost all the time. Lots of people in hospitals smoked in those days, even the doctors.”

Orwell unfortunately suffered an allergic reaction to the drug, and died from his condition in 1950. However, streptomycin went on to become one of three drugs that would aid an Edinburgh team which included Prof Williamson to effectively wipe out TB in the UK.

Between 1954 and 1957, he worked under Sir John Crofton as part of the team whose three-drug approach to the treatment of the once common disease is still used today. Williamson would travel round Edinburgh tenements with an X-ray machine, testing residents for TB in an effort to stop infection spreading.

Prof Williamson is also described as the founding father of British geriatric medicine, becoming the first professor of the discipline at Edinburgh University in 1976. In 1985 he was awarded a CBE for his contribution to the care of older people. He died in Edinburgh on June 29, and is survived by his wife and five children.