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Dr James Purdon Martin (1893 - 1984):
Physician: neurologist

James Purdon Martin was a leading, even pioneering, figure in the field of neurology, enjoying very high esteem among his colleagues local, national and international.

He was born at Meadowbank Farm, Jordanstown, County Antrim, second in a sibship of two sons and five daughters of Samuel Martin, an agent for woollen and cotton goods and his wife Georgina Purdon, daughter of James Purdon, a merchant of Chichester Park, Belfast. The Martins had been established at Mossley, near Jordanstown, since the early nineteenth century or possibly before, and occupied Meadowbank Farm from 1864. James and Georgina were married in Duncairn Presbyterian Church, near Chichester Park, on 13 November 1890. At the time of James’ birth the Martins were evidently doing well materially as they were able to move to south Belfast and to its perhaps most affluent street, at 23 Malone Park. Later they moved to 51 Princetown Road, Bangor, County Down.

James was a highly intelligent child, intellectually talented and precocious. He enrolled at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in 1905 and entered Queen’s University Belfast in 1912 with an Exhibition (scholarship) to read Modern Languages, though he in fact read mathematics. He graduated BA in 1915 with first class honours, was awarded the Frederick Purser Studentship and elected Graduate President of the Students’ Representative Council, which carried with it a seat on the University Senate, and therefore a student voice in some of the affairs of the University.

Graded as medically unfit for military service due to psoriasis, a condition which was to trouble him for the rest of his life. He continued his studies at Queen’s University taking the degree of MA in 1918 and MB BCh BAO with honours in 1920. He now decided to pursue his choice of a career in medicine and despite considerable parental opposition he took up a resident post at the Royal Southern Liverpool Hospital in 1921 which helped him to study for further degrees and he was awarded the degree of MD from Queen’s University and Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (of London) in 1922. This was raised to a Fellowship of the College in 1930, thanks to facilities provided at St Bartholomew’s College Hospital, London. Before these qualifications, however, his commitment had become focused on neurology and he obtained a resident post at the National Hospital at Queen’s Square, London in March 1921 as house physician to the Senior Physician which was facilitated by his experience in Liverpool during the epidemic in that area of encephalitis lethargica which only later reached London by which time he had exceptional clinical experience of the disease and its sequelae which the London neurologists had only begun to see. This further impressed his seniors and in 1925, and now married, he was appointed to the consultant staff of the National Hospital. Further recognition and advancement came rapidly. Though essentially a clinician with interests rather than a “researcher” as such, his active mind responded to any research opportunity and when one presented itself especially in an arcane field in neurology he responded energetically. And so it was that in 1927 he established the association between hemiballismus and partial lesion of the Body of Luys. Since most of his work was clinical his reputation depended on sound observation leading to accurate diagnosis and selective treatment and was not to be found through lengthy lists of publications but rather embodied as a corpus of experience in his invited contributions, such as the 8th and especially the (1956) 9th editions of the magisterial (Price’s) Textbook of Medicine. He was appointed neurologist to the British Postgraduate Medical School (1935-1957), held consultant appointments at the Bolingbroke and Whipps Cross Hospitals, and also the Seaman’s Hospital at Greenwich as well as others and during World War II to the London and Eastern District Command (Home Forces) 1940-1944. At Queen Square he was rightly seen as a doyen and was Dean of the Medical School (1944-1948) and became the first Dean of the Institute of Neurology there on its foundation, in 1948, the year he first described and reported the therapeutic effect of penicillin in neurosyphilis. He was the Lumleian lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians in 1947 on “Consciousness and its Disturbances” and the Arris and Gale lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1963 on “The basal Ganglia and Locomotion” which introduced an important topic which became the subject of his book, The Basal Ganglia and Posture (1967). This work included study of patients with post-encephalitic Parkinsonism who were long-stay patients (over 40 years) at Highlands Hospital, Winchmore Hill and their reactions to displacement of posture, and he was requested to prepare a second edition, but time was not on his side. This was a field of study which added greatly to his reputation especially on the continent of Europe where a Society had been formed purely for such a study and Martin’s interest in the subject was one of the reasons which, rightly or wrongly, he always considered that the continental neurologists thought more of his work than did his British contemporaries. He was even invited to be the Society’s President and as such he addressed them at the ripe age of 85. He had also been joint editor of the journal Neurology and was a member of the British, French and Canadian Neurological Societies and was visiting professor at the University of Colorado in 1959.

Martin’s private life was generally that of a contented man though he wrote an analysis of Henry James’ Gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw, which was greatly regarded by the author Jonathan Miller and he could discourse on porcelain with any expert. Sadly his private life was marred by the untimely death of his first wife,  whom he had married in 1922. She was Marjorie Ada Blandy, a doctor and the first woman medical registrar ever appointed at Queen Square. She was born in Spain in 1892 her father being Richard Redpath Blandy, a British Subject though born in Madeira. Marjorie served in the Women’s Hospital Corps at Wimereux in the Pas-de-Calais of northern France, as early as October 1914 and after the war she lived in London (33 Hunter House, St Pancras) and married Martin in 1922 though she remained in practice as a “physician” at 59 Queen Anne Street, Mayfair. They had two sons, both of whom became engineers. She died in 1937. In 1947 Martin married Janet Smiles Ferguson (née Nichols). She was born in Cliftonpark Avenue, Belfast in 1895; her father Jerdan Nichols was a mechanical engineering draughtsman and her mother was simply referred to as Elizabeth, but the family moved to Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, where Jerdan died on 15 May 1907. Janet was well known to Martin since they had been Mathematics students at Queen’s University together and they were married at Marylebone, London, in the summer of 1949. She died in 1978; the couple had no children.

Martin did not receive the civil (and in the opinion of many, also professional) recognition he deserved. The present writer has published elsewhere the following:

His perceived personality was partly to blame; rugged independence, a certain aloofness, an undoubtedly uncompromising make-up which could be disconcerting and which, allied with some strongly-held personal prejudices, masked at first his high intelligence, compassion, intellectual tolerance and unfailing basic courtesy. As with others...Martin’s Ulster personality and sense of values were not always understood by our English neighbours.

But the writer continued:

...when he was 89 the Senate of Queen's University at long last honour him with the DSc (honoris causa), the distinction he prized above all others... few will forget the noble bearing, the thinning white mane, the patrician visage and the easy dignity of his platform appearance though  physically he was much hampered...which belied the 66 years which separated this decision of the Senate from his own membership of that self-same body as Graduate President of the Students’ Representative Council, 1916-1917.

He died in his beloved National Hospital, Queen Square.

Born: 11 June 1893
Died: 7 May 1984
Peter Froggatt

The author is particularly grateful to Maud Hamill, Ulster History Circle, for additional research


JA Weaver and P Froggatt, Ulster Medical Journal, vol 56, Supplement, p 548 (August 1987); obituary, British Medical Journal, vol 288, p 1698 (2 June 1984); obituary, The Lancet (9 May 1984, p 1135); The Medical Dictionary 1982; J Purdon Martin: “Reminiscences of Queen Square”, British Medical Journal, vol 283, p 1640 (18 December 1981); information from Dr Diane Hadden, niece of James Purdon Martin and other sources known to the author