Charles Wilson was born at Skipton-on-Craven, Yorkshire. His father was John Forsythe Wilson of County Derry, who was a general practitioner in Skipton from 1878 to 1886; owing to illness he moved to a smaller practice at Wolston, a village near Coventry, and later to Barrow-in-Furness. His mother was the daughter of John Hannah. His elder brother, Lorton Wilson, was a doctor of medicine, and worked as a general practitioner all his life.
Wilson was educated at Rocklington Grammar School in Yorkshire and made up his mind to become a doctor at the age of sixteen. He had wished to become a writer, but taking the advice of his father he went into medicine to give him a more secure future. He entered St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, in 1902 — the same year as Sir Alexander Fleming - and qualified in 1908. Whilst a student he was editor of the hospital Gazette, captain of the rugby football fifteen, and already showed that he had a decisive mind and exceptional determination.
Within a year of qualifying Charles Wilson became disillusioned with some of his teachers and went abroad to study art in Florence and Rome. In 1912 he took a post looking after an elderly American widow who was living at Aswan on the Upper Nile. Whilst in Egypt he became interested in the temples on the Nile and also won a camel race at the Aswan Sports Club. On his return in 1913 he took his MD, being awarded the gold medal in medicine. He was appointed medical registrar at St Mary’s, but on the outbreak of war in 1914 he enlisted at once in the RAMC and was posted as medical officer to the 1st Battalion the Royal Fusiliers. He spent two years in the front line and had a long and hard experience of trench warfare. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for bravery on the Somme, and was twice mentioned in despatches. From 1917 to the end of the war he was in charge of the medical division of the 7th Base Hospital at Boulogne.
Much later (1945), when he was Lord Moran, he published a small book of about 200 pages giving an account of his years in the army. This was entitled The Anatomy of Courage. It is written with remarkable sensitivity and dedicated To my father who was without fear, by his son who is less fortunate’. In this brilliantly told story of heroism and tragedy in war can be found the reason (as he writes) for the author’s ‘loss of faith in the infallibility of authority’, a trait which shows steadily in his later life. It is a book which expresses Wilson’s personality, and shows his skill in picking out the essentials in the characters of others, a skill which he showed increasingly throughout his long career. For many years he lectured on courage at the Staff College at Camberley.
Soon after his return from France, Wilson was appointed honorary assistant physician to St Mary’s Hospital (1919) and in the following year was elected dean. At that time St Mary’s Medical School, which had an entry of some 20 students with a budget of about £30,000 per year, was threatened with closure, and had been advised to become a postgraduate school.
During his time as dean (1920 to 1945) Wilson transformed the School, and its position at the time of his death is the finest memorial to his work that he could have wished. Although unpaid, Wilson gave his whole energy and much of his time to his work as dean, becoming an outstanding leader in matters of medical education. He emphasized the importance in the selection of medical students of a general assessment of personality, character, and ability, rather than of judging solely by academic achievements; he made awards of clinical scholarships on his personal judgment, not on examination results, in a way comparable to the method used in electing Rhodes Scholars. This led to heavy criticism, and was stigmatized by some as just a way of rewarding athletic prowess.
During the years at St Mary’s, Wilson also pressed for the initiation of full-time professorial units at the hospital and for a great increase in the number of beds available for clinical teaching. This he did by linking St Mary’s with the old Paddington Infirmary in the Harrow Road, being himself a visiting physician there on the London County Council staff. He took a large part in the heated discussions of that time, between those who resented paid appointments of clinical teachers at an LCC hospital, and those who defended the honorary system of the voluntary hospitals. Wilson firmly backed the cooperation of the two systems, long before the days of the National Health Service, with which he later became so deeply involved. It was Wilson’s remarkable skill in presenting the case which largely persuaded Lord Revelstoke and Lord Beaverbrook to give donations to the rebuilding fund of the medical school large enough to enable the new buildings to be built, and opened by HM King George V in December 1933. At the same time Lord Beaverbrook gave the money to buy the fine athletic ground at Teddington for St Mary’s.
Wilson was knighted in 1938 and in the same year was elected treasurer of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1940 he became personal physician (see also T C Hunt) to Sir Winston Churchill, and accompanied him to conferences at Casablanca, Cairo, Teheran, Yalta and on other wartime visits abroad. He became a well known public figure when he successfully treated Sir Winston - with D Evan Bedford - for pneumonia near Tunis at the end of 1943. It was in this year that he was created a peer - First Baron Moran of Manton in the County of Wiltshire.
In 1941 he was elected PRCP, being re-elected each year until 1950, when he was succeeded by W Russell (later Lord) Brain. Moran was the youngest president of the College for many years, and owed his election greatly to the support of a small group known as the Younger Fellows Club, who believed that the College urgently needed a new approach to medical affairs.
Moran was president of the College during the difficult years preceding the introduction of the National Health Service. Between 1946 and 1948 the terms of service of the new Health Service Act were debated and furiously contested, and Moran showed tenacity and much political skill in working for what he believed were the best terms that could be got. In his efforts to obtain these he met fierce opposition from some of his consultant colleagues, but it was certainly his powerful advocacy of the distinction awards for consultants that gave them advantages they would probably not otherwise have had. He was a member of the 1948 Spens Committee for Consultants and Specialists, and the profession owes much to his determination and diplomacy, during the long drawn out arguments between the supporters of a full-time medical service and those who saw this as a disaster. Moran was in the centre of the political conflict between consultants and general practitioners.
He did much to bring consultants together, and worked hard to unite the three Royal Colleges and to form a representative committee of all consultants, which could offer expert advice to the Government on matters of policy. For a time he supported a project for the formation of an academy of medicine and surgery, which would link the College of Physicians and the College of Surgeons in a joint precinct in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This idea, which was initially put forward by Sir Alfred (later Lord) Webb-Johnson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, ultimately came to nothing, for a number of reasons, and caused disappointment to many and feelings of regret for a great opportunity lost.
Moran made no secret of his belief that the consultants were in a different class from the general practitioners, and in 1958 caused bitter resentment by his replies to questions put to him on this point at the Royal Commission on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration. Asked if he thought consultants and general practitioners were to be regarded as on a ‘level’, he replied: ‘emphatically no - could anything be more absurd? A medical career was a ladder on which those of outstanding merit rose to be consultants and others fell off to be practitioners.’
During the 1939 -1945 war Moran was in charge of a large sector of the Emergency Medical Service, but much of his energy and time were taken up with his duties as personal physician to Sir Winston Churchill. There is no doubt that his judgment and skill were important factors in maintaining Sir Winston’s health through the long continuing strain of those arduous times. In his special position as doctor, Moran necessarily became involved in matters of national importance, and this gave him almost a feeling of possessive obsession about his patient and his work. He was in fact supremely fitted for his role, being not only a wise physician but having the courage both to take risks when needed, and to persuade his difficult patient to follow his advice. His skill in choosing the right specialist at the right moment and in giving guidance to them in the handling of a sick and often obstructive patient was evidence of his exceptional ability in the art of medicine. One of the precepts which he had early learnt was Pitcairn’s well-known saying The last thing a physician learns in the course of his experience is to know when to do nothing.’
After his elevation to the Peerage in 1943 Moran spoke effectively in the House of Lords, and his close association with Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health, and his intimate contacts with others concerned with the Health Service, gave him a powerful influence in shaping future standards of medical practice. Few would deny the lasting debt which the profession owes him, if only (as he said himself) by preventing medicine from degenerating into a trade. It is greatly owing to Moran’s vision that British medicine stands in so high a position, and his period of office as president brought the Royal College of Physicians increasing authority, both academically and nationally. Indeed it seemed to some that his position amongst the leaders of the country lessened his capacity to deal happily with the rank and file of consultants and practitioners. Though not aloof, he was sometimes intolerant of the prejudices of his fellow doctors and did not always find that special facility which brings affection rather than admiration. In spite of his devastating power of criticism he could show great kindness and sensibility, and would concern himself with trivial matters if by so doing he could help those in trouble.
In 1957 Moran was appointed chairman of the Army Medical Advisory Board and was consultant adviser to the Ministry of Health. His interest in the College and indeed in public affairs continued into his old age, and whilst he lived in Bryanston Square he continued to attend College dinners until he was well over eighty. He died in 1977 after retirement to his son’s home in Hampshire, at the age of ninety-four, and was survived by his wife and his two sons, one of whom was ambassador at Lisbon at the time of his death.
Lord Moran’s achievements owed much to the help of his wife, Dorothy, who married him in 1919. She was the daughter of Dr SF Dufton, an Inspector of Schools in Yorkshire, and Moran’s devotion, during a terrible period when for nearly a year she was unconscious in St Thomas’s Hospital following a stroke, was rewarded by her almost miraculous recovery and return to fully active life. Dorothy had been a student of Joseph Barcroft, and her exceptional qualities of patience, tact and friendliness made her the ideal partner in Moran’s long and courageous career. Her father had been the first Science Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, which gave her valuable experience in academic affairs.
Moran’s career will be remembered best for the effect it had upon the formation and development of the National Health Service, but the public will always associate his name with that of Sir Winston Churchill. His achievements in medical education - not only in the transformation of St Mary’s Hospital, but in his determination to establish careers in academic medicine and to develop clinical units — are lasting tributes. As a writer he had a style and force which was the product of a great love of literature and much hard work. His Harveian oration delivered in 1952 ‘On Credulity’ is a fine example of the way in which he could express his ideas with the maximum effect and the minimum of unnecessary words. His absorption in the life of Sir Winston and his fascination for writing led to the publication in 1966 of his book Winston Churchill: the Struggle for Survival 1940—1965, which recorded from his diary events and impressions during the association between them from 1940 to 1960. The last five years of Sir Winston’s life are not included since Moran ‘saw no point in continuing the story beyond the time when it ceased to have any historical significance’. It is certainly a book of historical importance, of over 800 pages, and written in Moran’s own direct and very readable manner. It describes not only incidents and conversations of major national importance but also gives many details about personal and medical matters which only a doctor could possibly know. In the preface Moran explained that, although reluctant to write about Winston while he was his doctor, he was persuaded to do so by GM Trevelyan, who told him it was his duty to make known to posterity facts which were not known to others. It was these disclosures which led to strong feelings that Moran had overstepped the accepted standards of the profession, by publishing intimate medical information which many thought should have been kept confidential until at least some years after Sir Winston’s death. Many of his fellow doctors, including the General Ethical Committee of the British Medical Association, disapproved of the book, and the wishes of Sir Winston’s family and some of those mentioned in the book were, it seemed, against him. Others spoke enthusiastically of Moran as Winston’s Boswell, and although perhaps too long, no one can read the book without absorbing interest.
Moran’s skill as an orator was exceptional, and his annual addresses to Comitia at the RCP, in which he commemorated Fellows of the College who had died during the preceding year, delivered with hardly a note, were superb examples of the speaker’s art. In the House of Lords he always drew full and attentive audiences, and his speeches have been compared with those of William Pitt! He seemed to confirm Disraeli’s observation (noted by Moran in one of his lectures) that ‘with words we govern men’.
As a clinician he could have been amongst the ablest diagnosticians of his time, but his other interests made him almost abandon both private practice and student teaching. He did much for the College in his efforts to raise the standard of teaching, in the shaping of examinations, and in the field of vocational training both of students and postgraduates. His constant emphasis upon the training of the mind as against the mere accumulation of factual knowledge was matched by his contempt for those who took up medicine for gain. He saw the doctor as a humanist and accepted for himself — as well as for others - the old Greek dictum ‘A doctor should end his life as a philosopher’.
[Times, 13 Apr 1977; Brit.med.J., 1977, 1, 1088, 1289; Lancet, 1977, 1, 915-916; Canadian Doctor, Feb 1978; St. Mary's Hosp. Gaz., 1973, 79 (1); Portrait]