Dr Claire Chatterton, The Open University The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 9 (1) 2021

The Walton Centre in Liverpool has been a centre of excellence for neurology and neurosurgery since its inception in 1947. Rated as outstanding by the Care Quality Commission in 2019, when this book was published, it remains the only NHS Trust that is exclusively dedicated to this speciality. Whilst well known to the people of Liverpool and across the region (it serves parts of the North West and Wales as well as the Isle of Man), its name is less familiar to the wider public. This is the first history of the hospital that has been published.

The author, Chris Jones, has a career in nursing practice and education, and I have enjoyed attending his public health history walks through Liverpool, where his enthusiasm for the history of his native city and his knowledge of healthcare have made for engaging and informative sessions. This same combination of enthusiasm and knowledge can be clearly seen in this book, written as a tribute to this unique institution which he has known in a professional capacity but also through the experiences of his father, who as he says in the preface, ‘learnt about Parkinson’s Disease the hard way’.

This is not an official history and so was not commissioned by the hospital, which leaves the author free to express his opinions. In recounting the story of the Walton Centre, he utilises both archival material and oral history material from interviews he has conducted with retired members of staff to enrich his narrative. It is also well supported by illustrations. The author has self-published this history and aims to raise money for the charity, Parkinson’s UK.

As with many hospital histories, Jones begins with an explanation of the names of each ward and a description of the doctors and surgeons that they were named after. He then goes onto recount how the Walton Centre came into existence, before providing a short history of the development of neurosurgery and hospital services, and then tells the story of the hospital chronologically, ending with an examination of its work with children and the study and treatment of pain. I am not sure if this always works, for example I would have found it easier to get a sense of the hospital’s origins at the beginning of the book and the explanation of the origins of the wards’ names might have worked better as an appendix.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting read and explains how the unit emerged from World War Two’s Emergency Medical Service, when specialist services for those with head and spinal injuries, which had been established at Winwick Psychiatric Hospital near Warrington, were moved after the war to Walton Hospital, a large former Poor Law Infirmary in Liverpool. Through various moves, the unit is now based on the Aintree University Hospital site at Fazakerley, whilst retaining its independence.

As the author acknowledges, ‘this is my first foray into self-publishing so, you know, go easy’. I have tried to be, and I recognise that this was a work which aimed to celebrate a Liverpool institution which is perceived as a centre of excellence. I feel that he has succeeded in what he was trying to achieve in telling the story of (or some of the stories about) this remarkable institution and trying to raise its profile. Placing the hospital and its development into a wider context was helpful. This is not an entirely celebratory history either, and Jones does not shy away from some of the controversies that have impacted on the centre’s work, such as the use of leucotomies on long term psychiatric patients in the 1950s and 60s and the impact of the scandal at nearby Alder Hey Hospital in 1999,  about the retention of body organs without the consent of family members, which also exposed similar practices at the Walton Centre. There is scope for enhancing this book’s contribution to capturing the hospital’s history, for example by including patients’ stories and perspectives from other groups of staff. The author himself recognises that and states that, ‘he had to stop somewhere’. Hopefully, others will take up the gauntlet to exploring further the history of this fascinating part of the National Health Service.