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Biographical entry McGhee, John James (1931 - 2006)

MRCS and FRCS 1964, MD British Columbia 1956, FRCS Edin 1962, LRCP 1964, FRCPSC 1965.

6 December 1931
Princeton, British Columbia, Canada
18 April 2006
General surgeon


John James McGhee, known as ‘Jack’, was a surgeon in the Canadian town of Prince Georgia, British Columbia (BC). He was born in Princeton, BC, on 6 December 1931 and raised in Trail. His parents, Thomas Doyle McGhee, a miner, and Agnes Wilson McGhee, both originally from Glasgow, agreed that Jack and his younger brother, Gordon, should try to avoid life in the mines. Jack subsequently enrolled in the University of British Columbia. Having played for the Trail Smoke Eaters as a junior, Jack was on the university hockey team, but quickly realised he wasn’t cut out for life as a professional sportsman. He concentrated on medicine and was in the third graduating class of the faculty of medicine, being licensed to practise in 1957. With a group of classmates he went to the UK, and gained much experience in orthopaedic and general surgery. When off duty he enjoyed all the cultural and sport opportunities offered in Europe.

There were certain consultants who strongly influenced Jack’s decision to pursue general surgery. The first was Michael Reilly in Plymouth, who noted Jack’s ‘good hands’ and encouraged him by teaching him many skills. A strong negative influence was a position at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital where, in spite of encounters with many famous specialists, such as Seddon, and free tickets to the opera etc, he realised that the esoterica he was dealing with were not what he was really interested in. However, he continued with orthopaedics by taking a position at Nottingham General Hospital, before proceeding to Edinburgh to tackle the primary.

He passed the Edinburgh FRCS exam in 1962, and returned to the Nottingham General to take a surgical registrar position. His chiefs were Tommy Field and John Swan, and the senior registrar was Ted Oliver. The experience of working with these three skilled surgeons was inspiring. It was an extremely busy hospital, and the call schedule involved each surgical firm being on call for a continuous week every month. Cold surgery was not set aside during this week, so the work was intense. Ted Oliver died on the golf course, much too young – he was 45. Jack completed the London fellowship during this period, in 1964.

In November 1964 he married Carolyn Meetham, also a doctor, whom he had met in Nottingham. He had applied for one senior registrar position in Sheffield, but realised that it would be a very long haul before he achieved this promotion, and it was decided to return to British Columbia in 1965, after seven years in Britain.

On returning to Canada, while Carolyn kept bread on the table with an assistant resident position in paediatrics in Vancouver, Jack studied for the Canadian Certification in General Surgery, which he achieved in 1965. On weekends off they travelled around the province looking for a town which wanted a specialist surgeon. Prince George was the only city where they were welcomed with open arms, so they settled there. Jack formed a dynamic and legendary partnership with Bob Ewert, who had earlier come back to his home town as the city’s first specialist general surgeon.

Jack was a very skilled surgeon, much loved for his humour and courtesy, humanity towards patients, and scrupulous professionalism. He was an inspiring and enthusiastic mentor for a generation of medical students and surgical residents. Wanderlust led him to travel widely with his family. They volunteered their professional services in Belize, Dominica, Papua New Guinea and Somalia.

Jack retired from active practice in 1996 after 30 years. He was honoured to be made an honorary member of the department of surgery of the University of British Columbia in 1995, and of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia in 2000.

During his working life, his many hobbies included mountaineering. He was a member of the Alpine Club of Canada for 25 years and an active member of the Prince George section, where another of his interests was indulged: he would enter the photographic competition with success. He was a wonderful skier, and undertook many traverses and climbs with and without guides in winter and summer. He loved fly fishing for trout and steelhead. He was also interested in beekeeping, at which he became an expert. With his family, he travelled to all the continents, for exploration, natural history and especially bird watching. He gave many beautiful slide shows based on these travels.

He carried on with these pursuits after retirement, and added more, including cooking. His final remarkable trek, around Manaslu in central Nepal in April 2005, was undertaken in great pain from bone secondaries, before the diagnosis of lung cancer was made in August 2005. Nobody was surprised that he bore his illness with extraordinary courage. He died on 18 April 2006, at home, surrounded by his family. Posthumously he was inducted into the Northern Medical Hall of Fame in January 2007. He is survived by his wife Carolyn, three adult children (Alex Jane, a nurse, Rachel, a physician, and Dougal, a carpenter, whose wife is Kirsten) and two grandchildren, all of whom he was extremely proud.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Carolyn McGhee; BMJ 2006 333 356].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England