Dr Dennis Walder, 1916–2008

Dr Dennis Walder, MB, BCh, MD, ChM, FRCS, Ed, MFOM was awarded the James Clark Medal in 2002. A surgeon and not a tunneller, it was said of him at the time, ‘The younger members of the Society will not appreciate how such a man could possibly contribute to our industry to the level that he is honored, but it is not for his skills as a surgeon that we owe him so much but for his continued quest to improve the lot of the compressed air worker’.

Dennis's interest in the subject started in the war when serving with the RAF. In those days bombers flew at great altitude without the benefit of pressurised cabins and the airmen were susceptible to sub-atmospheric decompression sickness. In an attempt to discover why some men were more susceptible to the problem than others he constructed apparatus to measure the surface tension of the serum from their blood. In 1948, the Medical Research Council was keen to reduce the incidence of bends among miners and others employed in tunnel building and other sub-aqueous work. They invited Dennis and a young Dr Paten (later Sir William, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford) to take particular interest in the men constructing the Pedestrian Tunnel under the Tyne between Howdon and Jarrow. Their account of the high pressure work on that Contract set the standard. Paten and Walder were the founder members of the Decompression Sickness Panel of which Dennis was Chairman for many years. From his chairmanship grew the Decompression Sickness Central Registry and in addition to manlock registers from several major contracts the registry was able to assemble all of the X-ray examinations of the major joints of compressed air workers. The panel grew in stature and size strengthened by eminent radiologists and after a major initiative in which several hundreds of men were surveyed on the Clyde Tunnel, many of them several times, the Clyde report on bone lesions became the landmark in hyperbaric medicine. In the sixties Dennis masterminded the first code of practice for work in compressed air, the recommendations being published by CIRIA and running through three editions before forming the basis for the Guidance Notes which accompanies the 1996 Regulations. In the seventies he won two major Medical Research Council grants to further the work of the registry which, in addition to the now standard pioneering work, included the transference of half a million records from over 4,000 men onto the new NUMAC Computer. His forethought has ensured his records will last into perpetuity. Retiring in the eighties Dennis continued to contribute to the cause through the Compressed Air Working Group (the successor to the panel. Dennis died on 4 September 2008 at the age of 91.

Please see also Dennis Walder's obituary by Sir Miles Irving on the Royal College of Surgeons website.