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Lord John Walton, scientist and Parliamentarian, dies aged 93

25 April 2016

By Sandy Starr

Appeared in BioNews 848

John Walton, the eminent British scientist and parliamentarian, has died at the age of 93. He was a pioneer in myology, the field of clinical muscle research.

His reputation was founded on a series of papers in the mid-1950s, in which he and his colleagues studied genetic and other aspects of 105 cases of muscular dystrophies and myotonias. This was the first major classification of muscular dystrophies. In 1959 he founded the Muscular Dystrophy Group, which subsequently became the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and then Muscular Dystrophy UK, a major medical charity to this day.

At Newcastle University he held positions as consultant neurologist, professor of neurology and dean of medicine, contributing to the university's strong reputation for research into and treatment of neuromuscular disorders. This reputation has endured, with the university launching the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research in 2012 and the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Reseach Centre in 2014.

He served as president of several of the UK's most prominent medical institutions - the British Medical Association, the General Medical Council and the Royal Society of Medicine - before entering the House of Lords, where he served as a Crossbench Peer. He was an indefatigable presence in the upper chamber, where he continued to make lively and knowledgeable contributions into his eighth and ninth decades.

Lord Walton was a key figure in Parliamentary debates about mitochondrial donation. When the second Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was before Parliament in 2007, Lord Walton sought to amend the Act so that it would permit the HFEA to license mitochondrial donation treatment. In response to claims that this would lead to the creation of children with three parents, he said: 'The idea that the resulting child has three parents is nonsense.... On this reasoning, one might well claim that people with a kidney transplant have four parents.'

Ultimately, Lord Walton had to be content with the inclusion of a regulation-making power in the Act, which allowed for the passing of the Mitochondrial Donation Regulations several years later in 2015. When those regulations were before Parliament, he urged his fellow Peers to support them, saying: 'I cannot stand the thought of now extinguishing the hope of these women and families, who believe that this procedure will allow them and their offspring to have normal children without mitochondrial disease. For that reason it is crucial that these regulations should now be passed.'

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