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Recollections of a fellow bookend

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Tilli Tansey

For many years, Vivian Nutton and I were the bookends of the academic unit of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (later the Wellcome Trust Centre) at UCL. At one end, Vivian presided over the centuries from Antiquity to the Renaissance, while I upheld the other end, specialising in 20th-century medical science.

We largely occupied very different academic worlds, and it might be assumed that we had very little in common. However, for many years we had adjacent offices, which ensured practically daily conversation, and over the years we have found ourselves on numerous committees, seminar programmes, working parties etc. of organisations such as the Society of Apothecaries, the Royal Society of Medicine and the Friends of the Wellcome Institute, all involved in creating and maintaining bridges between medical practitioners and scientists on the one hand and medical historians on the other. As a former medical scientist, I obviously found these activities important, and it was always impressive that Vivian also saw the maintenance of such links as part of his professional responsibilities at a time when few of our colleagues agreed with us.

We were once almost co-authors of a paper, when I was invited to write a short review on the origin of the concept of the synapse for Brain Research Bulletin. In addition to reviewing the scientific material, I wanted to check the widely accepted and repeated account of the derivation of the word, and took the relevant materials to Vivian, who immediately cleared up a longstanding misinterpretation of Charles Sherrington’s idiosyncratic Greek, for which I was extremely grateful. I prepared a draft manuscript and suggested co-authorship. This Vivian declined, saying his contribution was merely that of a colleague, although he did point out two typos, a split infinitive and an inadequate footnote in my draft.

It is not within my expertise, nor I think is it necessary, to comment in detail on Vivian’s academic achievements and accomplishments. The national and international honours and reputation he has garnered speak for themselves, although many friends were saddened that his election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 2008 went largely unacknowledged in the Centre, unlike Roy Porter’s election in 1994, which was celebrated in style with a party. Vivian’s other talents, especially the musical, often came to the fore: a keen campanologist, he played the handbells, and often also the xylophone, keyboards or the piano at numerous Christmas concerts. He rehearsed and conducted several scratch choirs (and I use the word ‘scratch’ advisedly) within the Wellcome Institute and the Wellcome Trust, and also contributed to several other choirs, including those of the British Medical Association and St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The most revealing side of Vivian’s character, however, comes from his friends and family. For several years he had to look after his wife, Christine, who was severely incapacitated after major back surgery, while also coping practically single-handedly to maintain a home for them and their three children. He did so calmly and efficiently, and indeed many colleagues and students never realised the immense domestic burden he was carrying. His and Christine’s silver wedding anniversary celebrations demonstrated in particular the loyalty and affection he inspires, with professional colleagues and family mixing with old friends from Yorkshire, some going as far back as primary school.

Vivian’s retirement, plus the closure of the Wellcome Trust Centre at UCL, truly brings to an end a glorious episode in Wellcome history, and in the history of the history of medicine. Vivian was one of the first members of the Wellcome Institute, appointed when the pharmaceutical company the Wellcome Foundation formally employed the Library and academic staff on commercial contracts, such that Vivian held the unique academic position of Historian (Ancient)/Plant Manager Grade 1. His utter reliability and rectitude contributed to the outstanding international reputation that the Institute gained, and he has provided a model of academic excellence for generations of students, and also for colleagues. The continuing invitations to lecture around the world, as well as visits to children and grandchildren in the UK and abroad, will no doubt keep Vivian and Christine busy. His keyboard will continue to be in heavy use, and I suspect we have not heard the last of his beloved Galen.

Professor Tilli Tansey FMedSci, Hon FRCP is attached to the School of History, Queen Mary, University of London.

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