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Biographical entry Ballantyne, John Chalmers (1917 - 2008)

CBE 1984; MRCS 1942; FRCS 1950; MB BS London 1942; DLO 1947; LRCP 1942; Hon FRCSI 1975; Hon FRCPS Glasgow 1987; Hon FCS SA 1989.

26 September 1917
Nottingham, UK
25 June 2008


John Ballantyne, a genial, kindly, hard-working man who gave much to British and world otolaryngology, was a consultant otolaryngologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London. He was born during a Zeppelin raid on Nottingham on 26 September 1917. He was a triplet – preceded by his sister, Jeannie, and followed by his identical twin brother, Rollo. His father, the Reverend John Charles Ballantyne, was a Unitarian minister. His mother, Muriel, née Taylor, was ethereal, artistic and musical. All her children, including the triplets’ older brother David, skilfully played the piano. Ballantyne was raised in Liverpool and attended St Christopher’s preparatory school. On the recommendation of their uncle Arthur Ballantyne (professor of ophthalmology at Glasgow), John and Rollo, who had decided to read medicine, took their first MB at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London. This was during the deanship of Charles Wilson (later Sir Charles and Lord Moran), who positively encouraged students to take the MB (as opposed to qualifying with the conjoint board examination only). He must have welcomed the versatile Ballantyne twins who enjoyed athletics and swimming and founded the St Mary’s Music Society. They followed an accelerated course to enable them to qualify early, in 1942, in order to join the Services during the Second World War.

The captains Ballantyne joined the RAMC and were posted to Gibraltar. John was attached to the Royal Scots and began training as an otolaryngologist with R Scott Stevenson, whose interest in deafness and ease in writing left a marked impression. John’s first paper to be published in the Journal of Laryngology and Otology (JLO) was co-authored with his mentor, Scott Stevenson, and was entitled ‘The conservative treatment of chronic suppurative otitis media’. After the war, he completed his Army service in Hamburg and Oxford, before, in 1947, becoming registrar to Jack Angell-James in Bristol. From 1949 to 1950 he combined the posts of registrar to the Royal Cancer Hospital, London, with a research registrar post in the audiology unit at Golden Square Hospital, working with Edith Whetnall. This post stimulated John’s interest in deafness and the structure and function of the inner ear.

After three successful years as senior registrar to John Simpson and Ian Robin at St Mary’s he gained his first part-time consultant post at the Royal Northern Hospital in 1953. At the same time he became assistant director to the audiology unit at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital and also otologist to the London County Council (LCC). This experience led to the publication of his first book, Deafness (London, J & A Churchill, 1960). It was written to help parents of deaf children and the adult deaf and has been used by generations of audiologists in training. John’s second daughter Deborah, an audiological scientist, translated the book into Italian.

After five years at the audiology unit and the LCC, John moved on to a consultant post at the Royal Free Hospital. His senior colleague, W G Scott-Brown, introduced him to private practice in Harley Street and to his textbook Diseases of the ear, nose and throat (London, Butterworth), first published in 1952. The two Johns, John Ballantyne and John Groves, helped Scott-Brown with the second (1965), third (1971) and fourth (1979) editions, with each succeeding edition becoming a volume larger. John Ballantyne edited the second and third editions of A synopsis of otolaryngology (Bristol, J Wright) in 1967 and 1978 with his former chiefs from St Mary’s. He edited both the ear volume and the nose and throat volume for the third edition of Rob and Smith’s Operative surgery (London, Butterworth) in 1976, contributing chapters on stapedectomy and nasal surgery. In 1986, he repeated the exercise for the fourth edition, this time with Andrew Morrison and D F N Harrison as his co-editors of the ear, nose and throat volumes, respectively.

Experience gained from a sabbatical with Hans Engstrom resulted in the joint publication of a paper on the morphology of the ‘vestibular ganglion cells’. This work stimulated his collaboration with Imrich Friedmann (who was for many years the JLO’s adviser in pathology) in co-editing a book in 1984 entitled Ultrastructural atlas of the inner ear (London, Butterworth).

John Ballantyne was much in demand as a teacher, examiner and committee member. He never refused these duties, although in 1971 he is minuted as having seriously questioned the value of the repetitious work of the British Medical Association (BMA) otolaryngology group. It ceased to function the same year. And yet, if he could help to lessen deafness no task was too small. (He agreed, for example, to represent the BMA otolaryngology group on a British Standards Committee studying noise from toys.)

At the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) John chose as the title of his 1976 section of otology presidential address, ‘The hearing ear; variations on a theme of Helmholtz’, which enabled him to utilise his knowledge and love of music. He memorably played the passage in Smetana’s first string quartet (from ‘My life’), in which the composer described his own tinnitus.

During his time as honorary secretary of the British Association of Otolaryngologists (from 1972 to 1977), he also represented the association on the council of the Royal College of Surgeons. He examined for the FRCS in England and Ireland, and was a civilian consultant in otolaryngology to the Army.

As a distinguished editor of the JLO (from 1978 to 1988), John Ballantyne, with only the help of his tireless secretary, performed all the tasks of sub-editing and proofreading himself, including hand-writing letters to each author. He co-authored with Ted Evans and Andrew Morrison an influential report (published as the first JLO supplement in 1978) on cochlear implantation (CI), which paved the way for further work by the Medical Research Council and then the later adoption of CI by the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS). As chairman of the DHSS advisory committee on services for hearing impaired people (ACSHIP) from 1974 to 1980, he introduced hearing therapists and contributed to the establishment of specialist audiological physicians.

For the British Academic Conference in Otolaryngology, he served as honorary secretary and later chairman of the general committee for the conferences in Edinburgh and London respectively, and was invested as master of the seventh conference in Glasgow in 1987. In the same year, he was elected as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

John Ballantyne delivered the 16th James Yearsley lecture in 1970 on the subject of ototoxicity, the Sir William Wilde lecture in 1975 and the Toynbee lecture in 1984. He was awarded the Harrison prize in otology of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1971, and the Jobson Horne prize of the British Medical Association in 1982, and was a member of the Collegium Oto-Rhino-Laryngologicum Amicitiae Sacrum. For 20 years he was a most supportive director of the Britain Nepal Otology Service.

John Ballantyne was honoured with a CBE for services for the deaf in 1984 and received the honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the College of Surgeons of South Africa and the Royal Society of Medicine. In retirement he was a founder member of the RSM’s Retired Fellows’ Society. The last meeting he was able to attend at the RSM was in December 2006, when fittingly he chaired a lecture given by his daughter, Jane. He for many years was administrator of the RSM Music Society, ending up as president. He never lost his youthful curiosity or humour, and was always reading, learning and wanting to know more.

While in Gibraltar in 1942 he met Barbara Green, a Wren from Bristol. They married in 1949 and she survives him with their two daughters, Jane, an anaesthetist and professor of pain control, University of Philadelphia, USA, and Deborah, chief audiological scientist at ‘La Sapienza’ University in Rome. John Ballantyne died on 25 June 2008, aged 90.

Neil Weir and Andrew Brown

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 4 September 2008; The Journal of Laryngology and Otology 122: 2008, 1137].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England