By Chris Holme

He would be turning in his grave at Donald Trump’s decision last week to pull the plug on funding the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Sir Wilson Jameson led the UK delegation at the first WHO assembly in 1948 where he played a key role in smoothing emerging Cold War tensions.

His diplomatic skills helped secure agreement when it looked like floundering on two conditions set by the US Congress: a ceiling on America’s contributions and the right to pull out after a year.

Both are now in jeopardy and, given that the USA remains WHO’s biggest funder, this bodes ill for the current pandemic and future international health.

Sir Wilson Jameson was appointed Chief Medical Officer (CMO) by the wartime coalition in November 1940 and became the “Nation’s Doctor” during the darkest days of the Blitz.

Like many Aberdeen medical graduates, he went south for work – mainly in and around London as a GP, hospital doctor and medical officer of health before becoming Dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Jameson didn’t really want the CMO’s job having previously compared the internal bitchiness at Whitehall’s health department to that of a chaotic girls’ school.

He was persuaded by Health Minister Malcolm MacDonald (son of former prime minister, Ramsay), out of a sense of duty.

He totally transformed the role by actively reaching out to the public, making full use of radio, films, and publicity. The focus was on what people could do themselves, rather than, as with previous CMOs, simply lecturing them from on high.

Jameson was the first to hold monthly press conferences to brief journalists on current developments and campaigns. He spoke without notes and didn’t dodge questions. A key message was that germs might prove more dangerous than Germans.

Around 7,000 babies and children died in Britain between 1939 and 1941 from diphtheria – more than were killed by enemy bombs in the entire war.

Thus, the UK’s first concerted vaccination programme was launched in the nation’s darkest hour with free supplies of the vaccine made available to all health authorities.

Jameson’s role covered England and Wales but relations with Scotland’s CMO, Sir Andrew Davidson, and with Scottish ministers and civil servants were positive and cordial. After the war they all got together for a brief holiday in Killin. In May 1941, Jameson became the first CMO to broadcast on BBC radio. He pulled no punches: “In my view it’s nothing short of a disgrace that there’s still so much diphtheria about. There needn’t be if only you will play your part.”

This was also the time of the heaviest air raids on London which killed two of his medical colleagues in the health department. Jameson’s home in Highgate was almost destroyed by a landmine. During the week he slept in an office at the LSHTM but was fortunately away when it took a direct hit.

Jameson was a stickler for detail and keeping work and private lives separate. He later insisted his family moved back into their home after repairs and that his eldest daughter started her nurse training at Great Ormond Street.

October 1941 was hardly the ideal time for the CMO to swan off to a conference in the USA. Jameson was despatched to Atlantic City at the insistence of the health minister to address the American Public Health Association (APHA). His speech concluded prophetically: “For war, though a great destroyer of things worth preserving, may yet almost overnight open the door to progress and reform that in peacetime would have meant years of constant striving.”

In 1947, the APHA presented the prestigious Lasker Prize to Jameson, Jack Drummond, John Boyd Orr, and Lord Woolton as wartime leaders of “one of the greatest demonstrations in the public health administration that the world has ever seen”.

Jameson made a second peak-time BBC broadcast about things that were never talked about – tuberculosis and venereal disease. His Aberdonian accent helped – a soothing overlay to his calm, measured delivery.

Mental health was another taboo he confronted – it never featured in CMO annual reports until he covered it in 1948.

Jameson was approachable and ready to help colleagues, young and old, in their careers. Dr William Butler was furious that the army rejected him at the age of 75. Jameson found him a post at the health ministry.

He was the calming intermediary between Health Minister Nye Bevan and the British Medical Association (BMA) in the run-up to the creation of the NHS.

Bevan trusted Jameson and his fellow Scot, Sir William Douglas, permanent secretary at the health department. Jameson also had the longstanding confidence of the BMA, having set up its Finchley local division in 1920.

Attending meetings in New York, Paris, and Geneva, he became a key architect of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In his younger years he had also trained for the Bar which honed his skills in diplomacy and advocacy.

In his final press conference on retiring in May 1950, he described himself as “an average boy” from Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University, and a pretty useless golfer.

Bevan thought differently, breaking the parliamentary convention of civil service anonymity in the tenth anniversary debate on the NHS in 1958 when he named Jameson and Douglas: “The nation was extremely fortunate in having two eminent civil servants of that calibre at the Ministry at that time. I am quite certain that if Hon Members and the nation generally knew how much work they did and what a huge task it was, they would feel very grateful indeed.”

Analogies can be stretched, and circumstances are markedly different now, but the past can provide some pointers and parallels. For a disease caused by inspiration there is always room for inspirational leadership.

Chris Holme is a former Herald reporter and Reuters Foundation fellow in medical journalism.