Surgeon Vice Admiral Sir James Watt: Doctor who promoted Christian values in the Royal Navy

Just before pneumonia shipped him away, Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir James Watt was studying with interest the development proposals for the former Royal Naval Hospital Haslar, where he had been Professor of Naval Surgery from 1965-1969.

He later became Medical Director General of the Royal Navy from 1972-1977. A devout Christian, Sir James founded and actively supported the Naval Christian Fellowship, which came to embrace those serving in navies across the world. He was the 90th President of the Royal Society of Medicine: during his period in office a series of colloquia on complementary therapies was started, at the suggestion of the Prince of Wales. He was also a very good cook.

Born in Morpeth, Northumberland, Watt went to the King Edward VI School, Morpeth, and then to Durham University, where he qualified in medicine in 1938. During a brief spell as a house surgeon at Ashington Hospital, Northumberland, and resident medical officer at Princess Mary maternity hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne, the Second World War broke out and he joined the Royal Navy.

His war service was spent in the Far East, the North Atlantic and the Pacific, and he was mentioned in despatches. He also served at HM Naval Base, New Jersey. When the war ended he resumed his surgical career at Guy's Hospital and then at the Royal Victoria, Newcastle upon Tyne. But he felt a growing conviction that Christian leadership was needed in the Navy. He received an unexpected message from the Admiralty saying they understood he wanted to rejoin. The letter was in fact an administrative error, but as the last date he could return to the Navy coincided with the end of his contract with Durham University's teaching hospital, he decided God was calling him to return and did so as a surgical specialist.

Posted to the RN Hospital Haslar, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Watt, with Ward Master Lieutenant Douglas Barnard, formed a Christian fellowship for Bible study and prayer. They were encouraged by the 12 present at the first meeting, reflecting the 12 apostles. The director of religious films in the Rank Organisation presented them with a wooden plaque with Proverbs 3: 5 and 6, which became the text of a fellowship which now has membership from navies across the world. Watt had a deep affection for the Book of Common Prayer and was a supporter of the Prayer Book Society in its defence of the position of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England.

His contribution to surgery in the Navy was far-reaching. He served in the Korean War on the last hospital ship, HMS Maine. He worked in Northern Ireland and Hong Kong. Promoted to Consultant in Surgery in 1956, he served in the RN Hospitals in Plymouth, Haslar and Malta, becoming in 1965 the first joint Professor of Naval Surgery, and being promoted to Surgeon Captain. When he was appointed Dean of Naval Medicine and Medical Officer in charge of the Institute of Naval Medicine in 1969 he was gazetted Surgeon Rear-Admiral and promotion to Surgeon Vice-Admiral followed when he became Medical Director-General of the Navy. He was created KBE in 1975. An absolute perfectionist, he expected the same in others – some thought he overdid it.

He was a prolific writer, his medical papers including ones on the management of burns, peptic ulcers, hyperbolic oxygen therapy for gas gangrene, delayed wound closure. He also published studies in naval history, including an essay on the surgeons on the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose. And his lifelong commitment to Christianity led to What is wrong with Christian healing? (1993) and The Church, medicine and the New Age (1995).

In an address on "Conscience and Responsibility" delivered to the Christian Medical Fellowship Breakfast in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1980, published in the British Medical Journal, Watt warned that "to practise medicine without a wholesome regard for Christian values will lead to errors of moral judgement," adding: "For the last word, we must turn to the Bible."

Watt took an active part in the wider medical profession. Among specialist societies he was a member of the International Society of Surgery, the British Society for Surgery of the Hand, and the Surgical Research Society. The Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland made him an Honorary Fellow in its centenary year.

He delivered the Thomas Vivary Lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1974. He was examiner in surgery for Aberdeen University. His involvement in the history of naval medicine was recognised by a Visiting Professorship at the University of Alberta and a Visiting Fellowship at the Australian National University. He also served as a governor of Epsom College, "the doctors' public school".

A generous man, Watt enjoyed entertaining and was a very good cook. In retirement he followed his recreation of mountain walking and kept up his interest in classical music.

Laurence Dopson



Sir James Watt, doctor and founder, Naval Christian Fellowship; born Morpeth, Northumberland 14 August 1914; Surgeon Lieutenant, Royal Navy 1941; MS 1949; FRCS 1955; KBE 1975; retired as Surgeon Vice-Admiral 1977; Dean of Naval Medicine 1962-1972; Medical Director-General (Navy) 1972-1977; Honorary Surgeon to the Queen 1969-77; President, Medical Society of London 1980-81; President, Royal Society of Medicine 1982-1984; President, Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers 1996; President, Vice-President, Churches' Council for Health and Healing 1987-99; died 28 December 2009.

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