Brain, Walter Russell, first Baron Brain 1895-1966, physician and medical statesman, was born in Reading 23 October 1895, the only son and elder child of Walter John Brain, solicitor, and his wife, Edith Alice, daughter of Charles Smith, architect. At Mill Hill School he studied classics, since he was intended for the law. His hobbies were English literature, writing, and natural history. He wanted to do science, but this was not allowed by his parents. In 1914 he entered New College, Oxford, as a commoner to read history, which he disliked. Disapproving strongly of war, he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit in 1915 and was sent to work in York; moving later to the King George Hospital, London, he became attached to the X-ray department, where he met Stella, daughter of a physician, Reginald Langdon Langdon-Down. She later became his wife. He attended evening classes at Birkbeck College and in 1919 went back to New College to read medicine. He was taught by J. B. S. Haldane [qv.], (Sir) Charles Scott Sherrington [qv.], (Sir) Julian Huxley, and H. C. Bazett. He took a shortened course for the BA (1919) and obtained the Theodore Williams scholarship in physiology (1920). He married in September 1920 and entered the London Hospital in October. He qualified BM, B.Ch. (Oxon.) in 1922, proceeded DM in 1925, and was elected FRCP in 1931.
Brain joined the newly formed medical unit at the London Hospital. Through the influence of (Sir) Henry Head [qv.] and Dr George Riddoch, he took up neurology. He was appointed physician to Maida Vale Hospital in 1925, assistant physician to the London Hospital in 1927, and he was physician to Moorfields Hospital in 1930-7. Brain made four important contributions to neurology. With A. Dickson Wright and Marcia Wilkinson he showed that the median nerve could be paralysed by compression at the wrist in the carpal tunnel; surgical relief of this would restore function. With D. W. C. Northfield and M. Wilkinson he demonstrated the importance of backward protrusion of the intervertebral disc in the cervical spine as a cause of paralysis of the legs; this has since been recognized as a very common neurological disturbance. He described damage to the brain and peripheral nerves in cancer, particularly cancer of the lung. As a consequence, the British Empire Cancer Campaign established at the London Hospital a unit for the investigation of carcinomatous neuropathies, of which Brain was the director until his death. And he showed that the great protrusion of the eyes which is usually associated with an overactive thyroid gland could occur in its absence; he called this endocrine exophthalmos. He was an excellent and scholarly physician; not an experimentalist.
Brain had originally considered making a career in psychiatry. He never lost his interest in affairs of the mind, and particularly the problem of perception. Mind, Perception and Science (1951), the Riddell lectures on The Nature of Experience (1959), and a book on Speech Disorders (1961) were the outcome. From the time he was elected to the London Hospital, Brain earned his livelihood as a physician in consulting practice, in which he was very successful. He had a remarkable memory and a flair for exposition, resulting in a book Diseases of the Nervous System, first published in 1933 and reaching its sixth edition in 1962. His book with E. B. Strauss, Recent Advances in Neurology, was first published in 1929 and had gone into seven editions by 1962. He also wrote Some Reflections on Genius, and other Essays (1960), Doctors Past and Present (1964), Science and Man (1966), Tea with Walter de la Mare (1957), and Poems and Verses (1961). He edited Brain from 1954. Eighteen books and over one hundred and fifty papers was a remarkable output for a busy Harley Street physician, especially when his public service is considered. He achieved it by interest, industry, and a remarkable capacity for using every minute, particularly those spent in the back of his motor car. It was thus that he wrote Dialogues of Today, published anonymously in the Lancet during 1959 and reprinted as Socrates on the Health Service (1960), which had a profound effect on the ethos of the new service.
In public Brain was a shy, silent man. He once wrote: There are two international languages of religion: the Latin of the Roman Catholic Church, and the silence of the Quakers. His elegant after-dinner speeches, full of wit and learning, came as a surprise to the uninitiated.
Russell and Stella Brain were a partnership from their meeting in the X-ray department until Brain's death. They had two sons and a daughter, to whom they were devoted. The Brains joined the Society of Friends in 1931 and were subsequently regular attenders at the Meeting Houses on Sundays. He gave the Swarthmore lecture in 1944 on Man, Society and Religion, in which he stressed the importance of a social conscience. This conscience of his led him to take on a variety of public services. He became chairman of the medical council of the London Hospital during the war, defending the interests of those who were away on active service. He became a member of King Edward's Hospital Fund for London and chairman of its Hospital Service Plan. In 1950 he succeeded Lord Moran as president of the Royal College of Physicians of London, retaining this office until 1957. His wide interests, experience, and sympathy, and his lucid mind earned him the respect and admiration of the profession, the administrators, and the law-makers. He proved a medical statesman of wisdom, insight, and stature. He was a member of the royal commission on marriage and divorce in 1952, of the royal commission in mental certification and detention in 1954; chairman of the distinction awards committee from 1962, of the interdepartmental committee on drug addiction in 1958, and of the standing committee on drug addiction in 1966. He was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1963-4.
Brain was knighted in 1952, created a baronet in 1954, and a baron in 1962. He was elected FRS in 1964 and an honorary fellow of New College, Oxford, in 1952. He received honorary degrees from Oxford, Manchester, Southampton, Wales, Belfast, and Durham. He was an honorary fellow of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of Edinburgh and of Ireland, the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of England, of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the American and South African Colleges of Physicians, and the Faculty of Radiologists. He was president of the Association of Physicians (1956), of the Association of British Neurologists (1960), of the International Society of Internal Medicine (1958), of the Family Planning Association from 1956, and of the Migraine Trust which, as one who had been a sufferer, he was active in founding in 1966. Brain was an honorary member of American, French, German, and Spanish neurological societies, and of the Swiss Academy of Medicine. He gave the Rede, Eddington, and Linacre lectures at Cambridge, the Riddell lectures at Durham, the Bryce lecture at Oxford, and the Osler oration in Canada. He was awarded the Osler medal for 1960 at Oxford.
Brain died in London 29 December 1966, working to the end; his last working day was devoted to arranging a new issue of Brain. He was succeeded by his elder son, Christopher Langdon (born 1926). His younger son, Michael, became assistant professor of medicine at McMaster University, Ontario, in 1969. The Royal College of Physicians has a bust of Brain by Sir Jacob Epstein.
Sir George Pickering in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. xiv, 1968
Contributor: George Pickering