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Biographical entry Webster, John Herbert Harker (1929 - 2003)

MRCS 1953; FRCS 1960; MB BChir Cambridge 1954; MChir 1963; MA 1955; LRCP 1953.

2 October 1929
Heswall, Cheshire, UK
31 August 2003
General surgeon


John Herbert Harker Webster was a consultant surgeon in Southampton. He was born in Heswall, Cheshire, on 2 October 1929, the son of Herbert Webster, a biscuit manufacturer, and Doris Louise née Harker, the daughter of a chandler. In 1935 the family moved to Prenton in order to be near to Birkenhead Preparatory School. However, in 1939 he was evacuated to mid-Cheshire because of the war. The schooling there proved unsatisfactory and in 1940 John was sent to Ellesmere College, a school with a fine tradition of choral music, piano and organ teaching. From there he gained a place at Cambridge. He admitted to being absolutely hopeless at ball games, although in his own words he did “become a competent small bore .303 shot” and became a competent rower, rowing fairly consistently in all the major meetings at Cambridge, Putney, Bedford, Chester and Henley. He obtained an upper second degree in anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology.

He went up to London and studied for his clinical examinations at the Westminster Medical School, where he won prizes in medicine, surgery, pathology and obstetrics. After qualifying he became house surgeon to Sir Stanford Cade. He then did his National Service in the Royal Air Force from 1955 to 1957, ending up as a medical officer on an Army troop ship, being involved in the preparation of Christmas Island for the first British hydrogen bomb test.

On returning to civilian life in 1959 he met Joy, his wife, at St Albans and they were married the following year at Epsom. He was a junior hospital doctor in Sheffield as registrar, lecturer and then senior registrar. He was given the most enormous responsibilities and, as was the case in those days, given wide knowledge of practically all surgical procedures.

In 1967 he was appointed to the Southampton hospitals as a consultant general surgeon with a special interest in vascular surgery, more specifically to his favourite, the Royal South Hants. John noted that he had operated not only from his base at the South Hants, but in places as far flung as Southampton General Hospital, Southampton Western Hospital, Romsey and Lymington Hospitals, the Isle of Wight, Haslar, Basingstoke, Torquay and even the Royal Free.

John was a member of the Peripheral Vascular Club, a club made up mostly of so-called ‘second-generation’ vascular surgeons. These surgeons had learnt their trade from single-handed vascular surgeons in the teaching hospitals such as London, Leeds and Edinburgh. They in turn became consultants in their own right in what were then considered to be provincial hospitals. This club formed a great part of John's life; he and Joy enjoyed travelling widely with the fellow members.

His teaching abilities, particularly at technical surgery, were renowned. Many of his students were endowed with a sense of confidence, the major characteristic needed in a vascular surgeon. In its heyday his unit attracted excellent senior registrars and lecturers, many of whom have become famous in their own right across the country. He had a particular interest in cervical rib surgery and, together with Peter Clifford, David Whitcher and Richard Bolton from the teaching media department, produced an excellent film on first rib resection, which, in 1988, received an award from the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland for the most outstanding contribution of the year to surgical education. He was a council member of the Vascular Society. He retired in 1994.

John was a rather retiring person and sometimes taciturn, but he was a great raconteur once he got going and told many stories. He was a character, a good friend and an excellent surgeon. There was an intellectual side of John's character. If you looked at the bookshelves in his office you were more likely to find works on art and poetry, rather than the latest textbook of anatomy. He made sure he filled in The Times crossword every day, and actually became a semi-finalist in a crossword competition. His main regret was not to pursue music, but in retirement he improved his skill on the keyboard and built his own clavichord. He was also a great fly fisherman, fishing with his old chief and mentor from the Westminster Hospital, Robert Cox. Mixed in with all this was a love of golf and, above all, a love of his family, his son, two daughters and eleven grandchildren. He died on 31 August 2003.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 327 2003 934, with portrait; information from Tony Chant.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England