Charismatic Scottish professor of rheumatology who inspired, motivated,
and mentored a generation of trainees, colleagues, and collaborators from
around the world
Watson Buchanan had a major influence on the development of the specialty of rheumatology in Scotland and in Canada. He was the driving force that led to the creation of internationally renowned centres for rheumatic diseases in Glasgow and in Hamilton, Ontario. In addition to being an astute and immensely caring clinical rheumatologist who was adored by his patients, he was an inspiring teacher, trainer, and mentor, and a very productive clinical researcher, with a larger than life, charismatic personality. Watson possessed a truly remarkable ability to transmit his own unquenchable intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm to those who had the pleasure and privilege of working with him. Among the numerous students, trainees, and collaborators that he influenced over 40 years, there have been those who went on to become deans in medicine and in dentistry, professors of rheumatology, medicine, rehabilitation, biochemistry, immunology, pathology, and pharmacology; a chief medical officer for Scotland, and at least two vice presidents of international pharmaceutical companies, in addition to others who went on to become leading clinical rheumatologists in Australia, Hungary, Egypt, South Africa, India, and the United States, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom.
Watson Buchanan was born in Glasgow, the son of a sales representative of the iron and steel manufacturer Stewarts and Lloyds. After secondary school education at Shawlands Academy he studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and graduated in 1954, with the award of the MacFarlane Prize in Medicine, despite having had to pause his studies for a year, for treatment of tuberculosis. After obtaining the MRCP (Glasgow) in 1957 he became a research fellow in Sir Edward Wayne’s department of medicine at the Western Infirmary and obtained an MRCP (Edinburgh) in 1958 with endocrinology as his special subject. His clinical research and thesis on autoimmune thyroiditis led to an MD (with commendation) from the University of Glasgow in 1962.
The association of autoimmune thyroid disease with other organ specific autoimmune disorders and with autoimmune rheumatic diseases led Watson to undertake a landmark research study on Sjögren’s syndrome during a two year postdoctoral research fellowship with Joe Bunim at the National Institutes of Health in Washington. This, in turn, was followed by a productive research collaboration with John Anderson and Robert Goudie in Glasgow, numerous publications, and an important monograph on clinical and experimental autoimmunity. It also provided the foundation for an ongoing interest in rheumatic diseases.
In 1964 Watson was appointed senior lecturer in the department of medicine at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and consultant in charge of the newly created Centre for Rheumatic Diseases in the refurbished old hospital in Baird Street. The CRD, and the Regional Immunopathology Laboratory established within it, rapidly developed a national and international reputation for clinical excellence, postgraduate training, and research, and attracted trainees from throughout the UK and from overseas. The research output from Baird Street was huge and included groundbreaking studies of clinical and imaging indices, which were forerunners of clinical instruments currently used to assess, and follow the progress of, patients with inflammatory arthritis. Watson was the author, or co-author, of more than 500 papers in peer reviewed journals, and some 60 contributed chapters, and he edited or co-edited 11 books. Clinical Rheumatology, by Boyle and Buchanan,published in 1971, was the first modern, easily readable, and profusely illustrated textbook of rheumatology.
In 1972 WWB was made a titular professor of medicine in the University of Glasgow but left to take up the post of clinical professor of rheumatology and foundation director of the Centre for Rheumatic Diseases at McMaster in 1979. There he developed a centre of clinical excellence, training, and research, which was based on the Glasgow model.
Despite his achievements throughout a long and distinguished career, Watson never really became part of the conservative medical or university establishments in Glasgow or McMaster. He disliked committees and was frequently something of an iconoclast. He revelled in argument and controversy and always enlivened conference meetings with probing questions, or tongue in cheek challenges to orthodoxy. He was, however, also seriously and outspokenly critical of some of the developments in problem-based undergraduate medical education, and what he saw as the growing fashion and tyranny of evidence based medicine.
Nevertheless, Watson was made emeritus professor of medicine at McMaster in 1994 in recognition of his outstanding contributions to clinical and academic medicine; and he was recently described by the Canadian Rheumatology Association as "Canadian rheumatology’s greatest international recruit; a friend, mentor, and adviser who led by example."
Among the many academic honours and distinctions bestowed on him Watson was particularly proud to have been awarded the Cullen Medal from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 2004 "for the greatest benefit done to practical medicine."
In recent years he focused much of his extraordinary intellectual energy on historical research and re-evaluating the contributions of physicians he admired, such as Osler, William Hunter, and William Cullen. At the time of his death he had just completed a biography of the life and work of Sir William Osler, which will be published later this year.
Outside medicine Watson had an enduring love of Scottish poetry and Celtic culture. He could speak and write fluently in Braid Scots, Doric, and Lallans, as well as in Gaelic, and published a number of papers in Gaelic as well as a book on Scottish Gaelic Christian names for girls and boys.
He collapsed and lost consciousness while reciting William Graham’s poem "Mossgiel" at a Burns club in Ontario, and died the following day.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret; two sons; a daughter; and two grandchildren. [George Nuki, Roger Sturrock, Kim Rainsford, Roddy MacSween]