Physician, soldier and university administrator, William Melville Amott, known as 'Melville', was one of the last of a generation of academic physicians whose professional careers started in the 1930s when medical science was beginning to emerge as an important discipline. As with many of this generation Melville saw active service in the Second World War and, in the immediate post-war period, he was appointed to one of the newly created full-time chairs of medicine, an innovation in most English medical schools.
Melville was appointed to the William Withering chair of medicine in Birmingham in 1946. Having been introduced to scientific method during his post-graduate training in Edhburgh he immediately initiated a programme to study the pathological mechanisms of cardio-respiratory disease to which he attracted talented research assistants, several of whom became professors of medicine. The research team embarked on experiments, with themselves and colleagues as 'guinea pigs', to study pressures within the chambers of the heart by introducing catheters via limb veins into the heart. Cardiac catheterization, now a routine diagnostic procedure, had just been introduced as a research tool in the late 1940s and was considered by many to be a hazardous, and even unethical, procedure. However, Melville Amott and his colleagues persevered with their experiments and gained invaluable knowledge which led to a better understanding of the diseases of the heart and lungs.
He resigned from the William Withering chair of medicine in 1971 to take up the newly founded British Heart Foundation chair of cardiology in which he remained until he finally retired in 1974.
In addition to his academic duties Melville was a dedicated physician who accepted his full share of clinical work, leading from the front. Ward rounds taking place regularly on Sunday mornings - not always a popular event with the young doctors and their families! After he retired he undertook locum appointments for some years in hospitals around the West Midlands, commonly in departments of geriatric medicine.
William Melville Amott was born in Edinburgh and was educated at George Watson's School and the University of Edinburgh, graduating with honours in medicine. He was subsequently awarded a gold medal for his MD thesis.
A Territorial in the Royal Artillery before the War, Melville served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1940 to 1945 being mentioned in despatches and ending his military service as a lieutenant-colonel. He served in China, Hong Kong, and Malaya, North Affica and North West Europe, entering Belsen shortly after it was relieved. He was one of the last British officers to leave Shanghai as the Japanese invaders approached and probably the last British officer to travel in uniform on the Mukden-Peking express!
A slightly built, taciturn, proud Scot, Melville was not easy to know well. On first acquaintance he appeared rather forbidding and reticent. However, once friendship had been established, he became relaxed and approachable. During clinical meetings he had the disturbing habit of appearing to have fallen asleep. At the end of a presentation of a case he would 'wake up' and ask a series of penetrating questions, an unnerving experience for the young presenter. He was proud of his 'young men' (few women!) and followed their careers with interest. His knowledge of medicine was extensive and he continued to read medical journals during his retirement. At the time of his death Melville was one of the most senior members of the Medical Pilgrims, a travelling club of physicians which he very much enjoyed, allowing him to meet old friends from around Britain and Ireland in a convivial atmosphere and to participate in scientific discussion.
Melville Amott was a member of numerous important national and international committees, including the Medical Research Council and the University Grants Committee, and was an external examiner at many universities in the UK and overseas. He played a major part in the foundation of the medical school in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and of the new medical school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In 1973 he was senior vice-president and senior censor of the Royal College of Physicians of London. He had a major influence on the development of the National Health Service in the West Midlands and was a strong supporter, and past-president, of the West Midlands Physicians Association.
Melville was married for 61 years to Dorothy who pre-deceased him by several weeks. They had one son, Christopher.
A M Geddes
[The Independent 27 Sept 1999;Proc.R.Coll. Physicians.Edinb 2000;0:90-91]