Memorable Manitobans: Richard Joseph Walton (1914-1995)
Physician, medical researcher.
Born at Auckland, New Zealand on 30 August 1914, he graduated in 1939 from the University of Otago Medical School in Dunedin. In 1940 he joined the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, retiring in 1947 from what was now the Royal New Zealand Navy with the rank of Surgeon Lieutenant Commander. In 1943, while serving on HMNZS Achilles, which had distinguished herself early in the war at the celebrated Battle of the River Plate, he met his wife Barbara while his ship was being repaired in Portsmouth Dockyard in England, after it was badly damaged by a bomb during operations in the Pacific. In 1949 he was awarded a British Empire Cancer Campaign Research Fellowship, and trained in radiotherapy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, near London, England, under Professor Sir David Smithers. After he obtained the DMRT in 1953, Dr Malcolm MacCharles recruited him to Winnipeg, and in 1954 he was appointed as Head of Radiotherapy and Medical Director of the Manitoba Cancer Treatment and Relief Institute as it then was. In 1957 he became the first Executive Director of the expanded and re-named Manitoba Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation. In 1973 he left the Cancer Foundation to become Vice-President Medical at the newly incorporated Health Sciences Centre, and in the same year he was made a full professor in the Department of Radiology, University of Manitoba. He retired from HSC in 1979.
In 1953, the Cancer Institute in Winnipeg had become only the third centre in the world to acquire mega-voltage equipment, with the installation of the ‘Eldorado’ Cobalt unit, manufactured in London, Ontario by AECL. (The prototype, designed by Harold Johns, had been built in Saskatoon and the first AECL machine had been installed in London). Walton continued this tradition of innovation; in 1963 when the Foundation moved into new facilities, a then state-of-the-art 35 MeV Brown-Boveri Betatron was installed, providing for the first time an electron therapy capability. In that year, the Foundation also acquired two hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and participated in a number of the early international clinical trials of hyperbaric therapy. In 1972 the first of the present-generation radiotherapy simulators was installed here, Walton having collaborated with engineers at the Picker Company on its design. He also designed an ingenious technique for delivering total body irradiation for bone-marrow transplantation. This utilised an array of six cobalt sources to provide uniform low dose-rate irradiation within a ten-foot cubic space in the centre of a thirty-five foot square treatment room. While receiving treatment, the patient would be free either to sit in a chair, or walk around, provided they remained within a defined ten-foot square. Source housings were actually designed and manufactured, but no actual cobalt sources were ever installed. This idea was way ahead of its time—it would be many years before the medical technology to support bone-marrow transplantation would be available.
Walton was a Board Member of the National Cancer Institute of Canada from 1956 to 1965, and was its president from 1962 to 1964. From 1968 to 1976 he was a member of the Committee on Professional Education of the UICC, and from 1960 to 1968 he was a member of the American Committee for Radiotherapy Studies. His publications include papers on such up-front ideas as the treatment of bony metastases with unsealed isotopes, and in 1970, an NCIC committee which he chaired published its groundbreaking report, ‘Standards for Cancer Control Centres in Canada’. His crowning achievement, however, was the report of the National Task Force on Cervical Screening, which he chaired. This had been set up in 1973 when the Conference of Deputy Ministers of Health identified the need for comprehensive screening programs. What quickly became known as the ‘Walton Report’ appeared in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in June 1976. It was immediately and widely recognised as a landmark publication, which has been widely quoted in the international literature. Although its recommendations have yet to be fully implemented, the Walton Report has resulted, albeit somewhat belatedly, in provincial screening programs being established in half of Canada’s provinces, including Manitoba, and the lives of many women have been saved thereby.
He also made some significant contributions internationally. In 1959, he helped establish, under the Colombo Plan, a radiotherapy unit in the Rangoon General Hospital in Burma (Myanmar), and in 1971 he set up an exchange program between the Manitoba Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation and the Seoul Cancer Institute in South Korea.
True to his Kiwi roots, Walton was an avid competitive sailor. He was also a keen swimmer, he was much involved with swimming activities in Manitoba, and was manager of the Canadian Swim Team at the Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1974. His daughter Anne was a member of the Canadian swimming team at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He enjoyed photography and music and was an accomplished pianist. In recognition of his community service, he received a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977).
He died at Winnipeg on 6 May 1995. In January 2004, the Department of Radiation Oncology at CancerCare Manitoba was named the Dr Richard J Walton Department of Radiation Oncology in his honour.
We thank Anne Grape for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Keith Davies Jones.
Page revised: 17 October 2021