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Biographical entry Johnston, James Herbert (1920 - 2003)

MRCS and FRCS 1950; MB BCh BAO Belfast 1943; FRCSI 1949; FACS 1976; Hon FAAP 1983.

26 February 1920
Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK
4 February 2003
Urological surgeon


Herbert Johnston was a pioneer of paediatric urology, determined to make what had been a peripheral interest a specialty in its own right. Appointed first as a general surgeon to a leading children’s hospital, Alder Hey in Liverpool, he soon saw that the urogenital problems required a much closer attention than had been accorded them, and by years of dedicated practice and research he built for himself an international reputation and inspired a succession of young disciples.

James Herbert Johnston, known to his intimates as ‘Herbie’, was born on 26 February 1920 in Belfast. His father, Robert Johnston, was in the linen business, his mother, Mary née McCormack, a science teacher. He was always destined for a career in medicine and distinguished himself as an undergraduate by gaining several surgical prizes. He graduated from Queens University, Belfast, in 1943, and after a house job became assistant to the professor of surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital and at the Children’s Hospital.

After military service, from 1946 to 1948, he returned to Belfast, taking the FRCS Ireland in 1949 and the English Fellowship in the following year. He then crossed the Irish Sea, theoretically for a short spell, but actually for the rest of his life, taking up senior registrar posts in Liverpool. There he came under the powerful influence of Charles Wells, who not only trained his registrars but directed them to their consultant posts. Thus it was that in 1956 Herbert was appointed surgeon to the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

Although Charles Wells was much concerned with urology, Herbert had had no specialist training and, curiously, he was at first given responsibility for the management of burns. With this in mind he went to a famous burn unit in Baghdad, but this venture was abruptly ended by the Suez War.

At Alder Hey Isabella Forshall and Peter Rickham were making great strides in neonatal surgery, but had no particular interest in urology and Herbert saw both the need and the opportunity to make that field his own. As Hunterian Professor in 1962 he lectured on vesico-ureteric reflux, the topic then exciting all paediatric urologists, and went on to produce a long series of papers illuminating important, or neglected, aspects of children’s disorders. He joined with Innes Williams in writing the standard British textbook on this subject and his published work soon brought him an international reputation, with invitations to deliver eponymous lectures in the USA and elsewhere. In 1980 he was awarded the St Peters medal of the British Association of Urological Surgeons in recognition of his many contributions.

In spite of all this evidence of enthusiasm Herbert did not at first acquaintance give an impression of liveliness. Deliberate in speech, he could at times look positively lugubrious. However, he became a popular lecturer, making his points with logic and a clarity laced with dry wit and self deprecating humour. To those who knew him well he was a delightful companion who could make fun of all life’s problems. His hobbies were few, though he was a keen golfer if not an outstanding performer in this field.

In 1945 he married Dorothy Dowling, who made a happy home for him and their son and daughter, who are now in the teaching profession. His retirement was marred by a stroke which left him with considerable disability, but he was lucky to have Dorothy to look after him so well. He died on 4 February 2003.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England