Walter Morley Fletcher

The lecture hall in my Institute dates back to the 1930s. It has a simple design with excellent acoustics, typical of its era. It is called the Fletcher Memorial Hall, which begs the question – who he? Just outside the hall there is a clue in the shape of a bust on a marble plinth. It portrays Sir Walter Morley Fletcher (1873-1933) who was the very first Secretary of the MRC.

Bust of Walter Morley Fletcher

This bust of Walter Morley Fletcher stands outside the Fletcher Memorial Hall in NIMR, Mill Hill

Research career at Cambridge
Fletcher graduated from Cambridge University then gained his clinical training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and later spent some time at Hans Meyer’s laboratory in Marburg, Germany. But his intellectual home was Cambridge and he spent most of his research career there. In 1897 he won the Trinity Fellowship, which gave security for a life of scientific work in Cambridge. He was a loyal Cambridge man and participated in the affairs of both Trinity College and the University, serving for a time as Proctor.

Fletcher was a physiologist and he quickly gravitated to research on muscle respiration. He used techniques from biophysics and biochemistry to elucidate the chemical exchanges in contracting muscle. He published an important series of papers in Journal of Physiology between 1898 and 1914 that are still cited even today. His first contribution, in 1898, was a substantial paper of nearly one hundred pages, documenting the elaborate apparatus that he used to measure carbon dioxide. His 1907 paper with Gowland Hopkins showed that contraction of excised muscle is accompanied by an increase in lactic acid but if the muscle is placed in oxygen the lactic acid disappears. In his last published research paper, in 1914, Fletcher showed that none of the processes leading to the release of carbon dioxide was directly concerned with muscle contraction. Fletcher’s work ushered in the lactic acid era and opened the way for his student AV Hill’s work on muscle physiology. Fletcher, with Gowland Hopkins, gave the Croonian Lecture in 1915 on the story of the respiratory processes in muscle.

Research administration at the MRC
Fletcher’s success in research was not enough for him. John Ledingham wrote

It has been said that Fletcher’s soul was not fully and entirely satisfied by the strivings and triumphs of laboratory toil and that he sought a wider arena in which his intellectual versatility and his flair for managing might have full play.

Fletcher’s friend and colleague T.R. Elliott wrote that

after 20 years at Cambridge [Fletcher] came to that critical period nel mezzo del cammin di vita when men who know their powers for administration and see around them occasions that would with certainty yield good results to their controlling hands, are inclined to abandon the laboratory and its slowly moving quest for knowledge.

The Medical Research Committee was established by the UK government in 1913 and Fletcher was appointed to lead it in 1914. The career change seemed to suit him. Elliott said that Fletcher’s “peculiar gifts thenceforward shone with the brightest power for the aid of medical science“.

Fletcher took up his position with the MRC in 1914, just before the First World War started. The war could have been a disaster for the MRC, but Fletcher was able to convince the government that research could be beneficial to the war effort. During the next four years the resources of the MRC were given almost wholly to the pressing medical problems of war-time, e.g. studies of wound treatment, poison gas, and renal disease among men in the trenches. The MRC gained the full confidence of both the medical profession and academic staff and emerged from the war with its reputation established and its future secure.

Fletcher worked harder in the 20 years he was at the helm of the MRC than he ever had at Cambridge and he became the guiding spirit of the MRC in its formative period. In 1920 he re-established it as the Medical Research Council with its own independence and Royal Charter. This made the MRC virtually autonomous, having considerable freedom and responsibility.

George Trevelyan, speaking after Fletcher’s death, said:

He was anxious to prevent the Medical Research Committee (Council) from becoming a mere Department of State like any other in Whitehall. Its spriit was to be scientific, not at all political, and not merely administrative.

The MRC also gained a high degree of esteem in scientific circles, partly as a result of the close links with the Royal Society that Fletcher developed, following his own election as FRS in 1915.

Fletcher guided the research of the MRC, focusing particularly on developing new areas of medicine and forging closer links between basic science researchers and clinicians, including funding clinical science research positions in hospitals across London. By the end of the 1920s, Fletcher was considered one of the guiding lights of British medical research.

Fletcher the man
Landsborough Thomson said of Fletcher:

His was a vivid personality – spectacular physique, striking features, dyunamic energy, quickness of thought, and an elegance in the spoken and written word – but with a ‘hovering stutter’ when excited. … warm human qualities as well … also masterful and he could be vehement in controversy if principles that he valued were assailed. … He had a veneration for truth and an intense belief in the value of science in the service of humanity

Others noted his “quick attractiveness of manner and a gaiety that broke out unexpectedly and could not long remain submerged by serious thought“.

Walter Morley Fletcher

Walter Morley Fletcher

Fletcher’s parents were from Yorkshire and were non-conformists, Congregationalists. Thomas Elliott wrote that

In each of them religion was blended with a sensitiveness to art and culture that made goodness and beauty seem to them almost the same. Fletcher never lost these spiritual impressions … His praise of clean scientific work rose to its highest appreciation when he spoke deliberately of its beauty…

Montagu James, Provost of Eton, wrote of him as “the truest and kindest of counsellors, and magnificently keen in his appreciation of all that is best in the works of God and man“.

Where principles affecting freedom for scientific research seemed to him to be at stake his courage to resist was unfaltering and outspoken. One colleague described him as ‘like a rock’.

Protecting medical research

Fletcher was tough-minded in protecting the scientific rigour of medical research. He argued that medical practitioners were incapable of co-ordinating scientific activities. Christopher Booth describes Fletcher’s dealings with Thomas Lewis and the Royal Colleges with regard to clinical research in the UK, citing a letter from Fletcher in which he said that physicians had alienated scientific opinion by their “insistence that headship among successful practitioners is a qualification in itself for leadership in scientific work“. Joan Austoker concurs, saying

his views on medical research differed radically from the opinions of those in the daily routine of clinical medicine .. and vigorous criticisms and intolerance of medical practice did not endear him to many in Harley Street

He believed that the problem of cancer had “passed beyond the realms of clinical observation, and clinicians do not possess the requisite education either to add to or even to supervise work which demands highly trained biologists“.

Austoker also describes the battles (I don’t think that is too strong a word) that Fletcher had with the leaders of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) and later with the founders of the British Empire Cancer Campaign (BECC).

He was displeased with the refusal of the ICRF to comply with his request for some formal cooperation in the administration of funds for cancer research. He was determined that all medical research in the future should come directly or indirectly under MRC control.

He was not pleased when he learnt of the formation of the BECC, writing to its leaders thus:

I ought I think, to remind you that the MRC is the body specially charged by the Government and Parliament with the duty of supporting and encouraging work in all branches of medicine.

Fletcher was also influential in a wider context. Landsborough Thomson says that he was

personally consulted by potential benefactors of medical education and research wishing to apply funds directly to particular objects. In the middle 1920s much of his time was taken up in planning the future London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Interestingly, he was named in Henry Wellcome’s will as one of the scientific trustees, alongside Henry Dale, but sadlly Fletcher died before Wellcome. I wonder what Fletcher would have thought of the major role played by today’s Wellcome Trust?

Thomas Lewis said, in his memoir of Fletcher, that

he looked out over England and saw how little her people were receiving in bodily welfare from all the newly woven science. The need for a fuller use of biology in every branch of statecraft became the theme which he later urged so strongly in public addresses… It was not the delight of the intellect in research … that became his lifelong motive .. [but] instinctive sympathy with high and selfless aims in public service

He added that Fletcher “continually emphasized the need for the application of every discovery to control of ill-health and … urged the measures that were taken to test or use their value“.

Microbiologist John Ledingham, in his obituary notice for Fletcher used a colourful analogy:

Fletcher was the conductor of a great orchestra of many and strange instruments, and it was his business to harmonise and co-ordinate the tunes of each to the greater glory of medical progress

The future of medical research
The year before he died Fletcher summarised his ideas about medical research in two articles in Nature, entitled ‘The scope and needs of medical research’. He draws attention to the science of genetics, saying “we can form almost illitimable hopes of betterment in body and mind that fuller knowledge in this subject may hold out to the human race” before warning against the pitfalls and false assumptions of eugenics. He also talks of the importance of prevention, nutrition, and industrial health. He concludes in saying

It is better mastery over living matter, and the improvement of the bodily and mental powers of man, that are needed for the real betterment and enrichment of the race. By powers of a kind that we are already in process of gaining by medical research we may hope to transform human life in ways almost unimagined now and to make a new world indeed.

Fletcher died in 1933, greatly admired as both a scientist and a public servant. After his death the MRC published an appreciation of his contribution, mentioning his research career, his teaching, his culture “in which scientific and humane studies were well and fruitfully balanced” and his mastery of practical affairs. It continued:

He was always and even painfully aware of the suffering and disorder of mankind and profoundly convinced that their root lay in ignorance. The zeal and unmistakable honesty with which he held this conviction were the foundation of his singular power.

The memorial

Over five hundred subscribers donated to the Walter Fletcher Memorial Fund set up after his death. The intention was originally to fund both a memorial statue and to contribute to the cost of a new laboratory for research in nutrition in the new NIMR building at Mill Hill which was then being planned. Fletcher had considered nutrition an important – and overlooked – facet in human health. However, plans for the Mill Hill site changed and a nutrition laboratory was not deemed to be a suitable memorial to Fletcher. Instead it was decided that a more fitting tribute would be to provide a hall for meetings and lectures at NIMR and thus the Fletcher Memorial Hall came into existence. The memorial statue, was first installed in the library at NIMR on its Hampstead site, and was later incorporated into the design of the lecture hall in the new building at Mill Hill.

Bust of Walter Morley Fletcher, in its original location in the Library at NIMR, Hampstead

Bust of Walter Morley Fletcher, in its original location in the Library at NIMR, Hampstead

A ceremony was held at NIMR, Hampstead, on 11th Nov 1936 at which subscribers to the memorial fund were invited to view the portrait bust of Walter Fletcher, sculpted by Dora Clarke. Fletcher’s old colleague Hopkins gave a speech, commenting that

very near to [Fletcher’s] heart were the interests of the National Institute … and he felt great pride in the important gains to knowledge which have arisen from the devoted and brilliant labours of its staff. The Institute has been a home of the team spirit in research. This spirit calls for self-forgetfulness, but here it has been abundantly justified in its results.

Sir Henry Dale, the then Director, accepted the custody of the memorial bust saying that all who worked in the Institute

could never forget what they owed to Walter Fletcher … this fine portrait would daily remind them of what he meant to the Institute in its early years and would transmit to those who came after them a hint of his inspiring personality.


A history of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, 1902-1986
Joan Austoker, Walter Bodmer (1988)
Oxford University Press, p. 375

Clinical research and the MRC.
C C Booth (1986)
The Quarterly journal of medicine 59 (229) p. 435-447

Half a century of medical research
A. Landsborough (Arthur Landsborough) Thomson (1974)
London, HMSO.

Memorial to Sir Walter Fletcher
F. G. Hopkins Stanley Baldwin (1934)
British Medical Journal, 1 (3832) p. 1091

Memorial to the late Sir Walter Morley Fletcher (1873-1933) secretary of the Medical Research Council, 1914-1933.
Walter Fletcher Memorial Committee (1937)
Oxford, OUP.

Obituary Notice: Walter Morley Fletcher. (1873-1933.).
J. Ledingham (1933)
The Biochemical journal 27 (5) p. 1333-6

Sir Walter Morley Fletcher. 1873-1933
T. R. Elliott (1933)
Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 1 (2) p. 153-163

The bright countenance a personal biography of Walter Morley Fletcher
Mary Frances (Cropper) Fletcher (1957)
Hodder and Stoughton

The Scope and Needs of Medical Research (part 1)
W. M. Fletcher (1932)
Nature 130 (3275) p. 190-192

The Scope and Needs of Medical Research (part 2)
W. M. Fletcher (1932)
Nature 130 (3276) p. 224-227

Walter Morley Fletcher and the origins of a basic biomedical research policy
Joan Austoker (1989)
In: Historical perspectives on the role of the MRC, edited by Joan Austoker and Linda Bryder. Oxford, OUP. pp. 23-34.

See also details of Fletcher’s archives and papers.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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10 Responses to Walter Morley Fletcher

  1. ricardipus says:

    Wow. A tour de force, Frank. Thanks for the history lesson!

    I particularly liked Elliott’s turn of phrase:

    … His praise of clean scientific work rose to its highest appreciation when he spoke deliberately of its beauty…

    More like Fletcher, please. Or if that’s not possible, more of these historical profiles at least. 🙂

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks. Glad you liked it, Richard. I probably included too many quotes, but they did have a lovely turn of phrase back then, so I just couldn’t resist.

    I have one or two more bits of history on the back burner, but you’ll have to be patient.

  3. david says:

    Dear frank, Could you please tell me the full name of t.r elliot and anything else about him? i have a book that was either signed by him or to him.

  4. Frank says:

    David – His full name was Thomas Renton Elliott, (1877-1961). Some information about him is here – and there is also an article about him in the Royal Society Biographical Memoirs .

  5. A great resource here. I am researching for a book about modern British printmakers that will include Frank Morley Fletcher (Walter’s brother). I was interested to see you say their parents were from Yorkshire. I know their grandfather ran Denmark Hill School. I thought the census return said the father was from London – though I should check.

    Do you have any idea what Frank studied at University College?

  6. Frank says:

    Thanks, Gordon. Sorry but I do not have any information on Frank Morley Fletcher. The information on the parents’ origins was taken from the Royal Society obituary notice (I am not sure if that link will work for you, it is to: Obit. Not. Fell. R. Soc. 1 December 1933 vol. 1 no. 2 153-163).

  7. Joan says:

    We are trying to find surviving members of Sir Walter Fletcher who was the first CEO (Secretary)
    The Medical Reaserch Council. 1914-1933.
    Is this something you could help us with?

  8. Frank says:

    Joan – I am not quite sure what you mean by “surviving members” – do you mean family members? I don’t have any information about his family, I’m afraid. Perhaps the archivist at the MRC could help?

  9. Pingback: 80 years ago today: MRC researchers discover viral cause of flu | Michael Bresalier

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