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Biographical entry Matheson, John Mackenzie (1912 - 2003)

OBE 1950; TD; MRCS and FRCS 1962; MB ChB Edinburgh 1936; MD 1945; MRCP 1939; LRCP 1962; FRCP 1972; FRCS Edinburgh 1946.

6 August 1912
9 November 2003
General surgeon


John Matheson was a former professor of military surgery at the Royal Army Medical College, Millbank, London. He was born in Gibraltar on 6 August 1912, the son of John Matheson, the then manager of the Eastern Telegraph station, and Nina. The family later moved on to Malta and then to Port Said. John was educated at the Lycée Francaise and then at George Watson’s College in Scotland, where he had some problems using English, being more fluent in Arabic and French. He had an outstanding academic career, and managed to finance much of his education through bursaries and scholarships. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he was captain of athletics, and qualified in 1936. He then did research into the treatment of tuberculosis.

He had joined the Territorial Army at university, so that, at the beginning of the second world war, he was quickly mobilised into the 23 Scottish General Hospital. On the first day at the new hospital, at the newly requisitioned Peebles Hydro, he met Agnes, known as ‘Nan’, the nursing sister who became his wife three years later. He saw service in Palestine, the Middle East and North Africa, where he was largely responsible for the organisation of medical services in the Tunisian campaign, before and after El Alamein, for which he was mentioned in despatches. He stayed with the 8th Army as they advanced into Italy.

After the war, he remained in the RAMC and gained his FRCS as a clinical tutor in the surgical professorial unit in Edinburgh. For the next 36 years he served as a surgical consultant all over the world. From 1948 to 1950, he was medical liaison officer to the surgeon general of the US Army and chief of the surgical section at the Walter Reed Hospital, Washington. For this work he was awarded an OBE. From 1952 to 1953, he was in Canada and Austria. He then spent three years in Egypt in the Suez Canal zone. From 1961 to 1964, he was in Cyprus, and then spent a year, from 1967 to 1968, in Singapore, Hong Kong and Nepal. He also consulted in hospitals throughout the UK. His final posting in the Army was as commandant of the Army Medical College at Millbank and professor of military surgery. He was an honorary surgeon to the Queen from 1969 to 1971. During his time in the Army he was largely responsible for introducing central sterile supply into medical services, and made important contributions to the surgical management of gunshot wounds.

On his retirement, he became postgraduate dean of medicine at Edinburgh University, a job he enjoyed for nearly 10 years. He was President of the Military Surgeons’ Society, the RAMC Association, honorary colonel of 205 Scottish General Hospital, and Chairman of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Samaritans’ committee and Scottish committee member of the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society.

He was a senior elder of the kirk of Greyfriars. His wife, Nan, predeceased him in 1995, but he continued to be active, taking classes in cookery, computing and Gaelic. He had an infectious sense of humour, and his genuine compassion and unfailing optimism made him a much-admired colleague. He died on 9 November 2003. One daughter survives him.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2004 328 467, with portrait.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England