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Biographical entry Johnson, Alan Godfrey (1938 - 2006)

MRCS and FRCS 1967; MB BChir Cambridge 1963; MChir 1972; LRCP 1967.

19 January 1938
Epsom Downs, Surrey, UK
13 October 2006
Wotton, Surrey, UK
Gastrointestinal surgeon


Alan Johnson was a leading gastro-intestinal surgeon and medical ethicist. He was born on 19 January 1938, at Epsom Downs, Surrey, the son of Douglas Johnson, a doctor. He was educated at Epsom College and Trinity College, Cambridge, with his clinical studies being carried out at University College Hospital Medical School, London. He graduated in 1963 and, after house appointments, trained in surgery at UCH with Anthony Harding Rains and at Charing Cross Hospital with Norman Tanner. In 1971 he was appointed senior lecturer and later reader in surgery at Charing Cross, before taking up the chair of surgery at Sheffield in 1979, an appointment which he held until his retirement in 2003.

He specialised in surgery of the upper gastro-intestinal tract, in which he became a world authority. Over the years he published some 200 peer-reviewed articles and 35 book chapters on topics such as gastric motility, portal hypertension, highly selective vagotomy for peptic ulcer, Barrett’s oesophagus, surgical treatment of morbid obesity and various aspects of biliary disease. His randomised clinical trial published in 1996 comparing cholecystectomy by either laparoscopy or mini open incision was heralded by The Lancet as setting a new gold standard for surgical research. This was later acclaimed as one of the five most important articles in gastro-enterology published worldwide in that year. He authored or edited ten textbooks and was in wide demand as an authoritative and lucid lecturer. He gave invited lectures in more than 20 countries ranging over five continents.

He took an active part in surgical professional organisations and was elected president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, the British Society of Obesity Surgery and the National Association of Theatre Nurses. For several years he was chairman of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee to the Secretary of State for Health and he also served as chairman of the Specialty Advisory Committee in General Surgery. He chaired several Medical Research Council committees and, owing to his incisive critical faculty, was a much-valued member of the editorial board of a number of surgical journals. He was elected an honorary fellow of the American Surgical Association and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Sheffield University.

Alan Johnson was an outstandingly popular colleague with his peers and a much-loved mentor to his junior staff and students. Gentle and compassionate, he had no enemies. Throughout his career he was keenly interested in medical ethics and wrote and lectured widely on this subject, in addition to his many surgical contributions. This interest stemmed from his deep Christian faith. His father had been founder of the Inter Varsity Fellowship and later became the first general secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship. Following in his father’s footsteps, at the time of his death Alan was president of the Christian Medical Fellowship, having previously been chairman. His lectures on medical ethics were legendary; they were always well-reasoned with a touch of humour and never table-thumping. One of them began: “Hitler and Mother Teresa each had 24 hours in every day – they just used them differently!” His last book, titled Making sense of medical ethics: a hands-on guide (London, Hodder Arnold, 2006) and written jointly with his son Paul, was completed a month before his death.

In his youth he was a keen sportsman, playing hockey and cricket for his school, university and hospital. As he grew older he turned to wood carving and painting in watercolours and pastels. He was also enjoyed ornithology and country walking. He played the piano and the organ and was a patron of the Sheffield Chorale, in which his wife was a singer. Married to Esther, he had two sons, Paul, who became a paediatric surgeon, and Andrew, and a daughter, Fyona.

During a routine medical check up two weeks before he died, his doctor jokingly said that Alan was so fit “he would live forever”. His reply was typical: “I am going to live forever, but not in this life!” A fortnight later, he was due to preach on ‘the place of compassion in modern medicine’ at St John’s Church, Wotton, near Dorking. There on 15 October 2006, in the churchyard, just before the service began, he had a massive myocardial infarction and died.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Independent 8 November 2006; The Lancet 2006 368 2048; BMJ 2007; 334; 212].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England