David Watkin was born in Shrewsbury in 1935. His father, Frank, got a job in the head office of the United Counties Bank in Birmingham, which was being taken over by Barclays. He was only 15, with only primary school education, but made up for that by studying commercial subjects at night-school. He worked for Barclays Bank for 45 years in district offices and then the inspection department. My mother, Mollie, trained as a teacher and taught in primary schools for 12 years, but never taught again after their marriage. They wanted me to be educated in the private sector but could never have afforded it but for a generous award from Barclays. which covered ninety percent of the fees.
My parents’ families were quite different. Grandfather Edward Watkin was for 20 years a tenant farmer near Montgomery, married to Maria Vaughan, the sister of a very prosperous farmer. Those were difficult times for farmers, and they lost the farm in 1908. They became a publicans, moving around a succession of pubs in and near Birmingham and ending up bankrupt. They were then supported by my father, but my widowed grandmother still had a maid! They seem to have had an exaggerated idea of their social status, combined with a disdain for education.
My maternal grandmother, Frances Artus, was one of ten children of a railway worker. She became an assistant teacher in a village school near Stroud, trained by apprenticeship. She served there for about 10 years until she married James Nicholls, a carpenter. He had moved from Herefordshire just before the wedding; it is not clear how they had met. They lived in a terraced cottage and had three daughters, of whom Mollie was the youngest. She and her oldest sister went to Bristol university; it is remarkable that two daughters of a self-employed carpenter went to university in the second decade of the 20th century.
I think my father would have liked me to be a lawyer, while my mother hinted at medicine. Neither of them pushed their ideas. When we lived in rural Yorkshire, I wanted to be a farmer, then moving to Rhyl, I planned to go to sea. In 1947 we built a house near Wrexham, so I became an architect, preparing for that with a course in engineering drawing.
Only when I studied science in sixth form did I decide that medicine would make best use of my interest in biology.
Deciding on surgery
I did the pre-clinical course at Cambridge, which did not then have clinical teaching. Having no experience of serious illness or hospitals, I had assumed I would be a GP. But once at Westminster Medical School, I was attracted to the hospital community. But should it be medicine or surgery? I chose surgery as it was a little less competitive and its practical element appealed to me. That governed my choice of jobs when I qualified in 1959.
Meanwhile I had met Elisabeth, a fellow medical student, and after completing our pre-registration years we married, despite disapproval from our parents. She had a career as a radiologist, including interventional procedures.