Walter Somerville

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 15 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:639

Leading cardiologist and former editor of Heart

Walter Somerville assisted at the UK's first cardiac catheterisation, performed by Paul Wood in 1948. For 20 years he edited the British Heart Journal, now simply Heart. He was consultant cardiologist at Harefield Hospital and the Middlesex Hospital, and senior lecturer at the Middlesex for 25 years, and was crucial to the success of cardiac surgery at both centres.

During the second world war he worked on chemical and biological weaponry, and remained on related committees for 20 years afterwards.

Walter Somerville was born in Dublin. From the Jesuit Belvedere College he went to University College Dublin, doing his clinical studies at the Mater Hospital. Feeling that medicine in Dublin was subject to excessive religious influence, he went to London. He was appointed as a clinical assistant at the Brompton Hospital in 1939, just as war broke out.

Somerville wanted to be a pilot in the Royal Air Force, but was steered into the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served on a troop ship before being moved to chemical and biological warfare duties at Porton Down. He was seconded to the Canadian Department of Defence and then, in 1943, the US chemical warfare unit. Working in the southwest Pacific, he assisted in top secret preparations for the invasion of Japan. During this experience he was badly burned.

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His closest friend in the US army was George Merck, son of the drug company's founder, who suggested that the family firm could use Somerville's talents, but Somerville felt it was not for him. Shortly afterwards, in a Boston pub, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer talent scout noted his fine English voice and Irish good looks, and offered him a screen test. Fortunately for cardiology, Somerville refused.

Returning to England in 1946, he attended a refresher course at Hammersmith Hospital taught by the great cardiologist Paul Wood. Jobs were hard to find for the “bulge” of demobbed doctors, but Wood was impressed by Somerville and appointed him as registrar, later making him a senior assistant at the National Heart Hospital. When Wood had a heart attack in 1962, aged 54, he wanted Somerville to look after him.

Though it was difficult for an Irish graduate to enter the closed shop of London teaching hospitals, he was chosen as consultant to the Harefield Hospital in 1952 and the Middlesex in 1954, and stayed at both hospitals until he retired. He also was a consultant to the army and Royal Air Force, looking after senior officers and the pensioners in the Chelsea Royal Hospital. He wrote 60 papers on infective endocarditis, emotions and the heart, mitral stenosis, and other topics.

Somerville was mugged badly in 1987 and the retinal bleeding this caused, combined with macular degeneration, made him completely blind for the last years of his life. He leaves a cardiologist wife, Jane Somerville; and four children.

[Caroline Richmond]


  • Walter Somerville, former consultant cardiologist Harefield and Middlesex hospitals (b 1913; q University College Dublin 1937; MD, CBE), died from heart failure on 20 July 2005.

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