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Biographical entry Humphreys, John (1925 - 2010)

MRCS 1948; FRCS 1955; MB BCh Liverpool 1948; ChM 1959; LRCP 1948; FRCS Edin 1955; JP.

25 November 1925
Liverpool, UK
1 September 2010
General surgeon


John Humphreys was a greatly respected consultant general surgeon in Southport from 1961 to 1990. His main interest was in gastro-intestinal surgery, but he was also a competent urologist. Fully committed to patients under his care, he visited them at weekends to check on their progress. In view of his popularity, it was inevitable that he was recognised by many families on the streets of Southport. He served the College as a surgical tutor, and was also a valued examiner for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. During his time in the North Sefton Merseyside region, he was a lecturer in surgery at Liverpool University and a regional adviser to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

He was born in Liverpool on 25 November 1925, the son of William Ernest Humphreys, a pharmacist and lecturer, and Gladys née Monaghan, a housewife. His early education was at Dovedale Road Primary School, Liverpool, and, apart from six months when he was evacuated to Wales during the Second World War, he studied at Quarry Bank High School before entering Liverpool University for his medical training. Here he was awarded prizes in surgery. He recorded his admiration and gratitude to some memorable teachers, including Lord Cohen of Birkenhead, Sir Thomas Jeffcoate and Sir Cyril Clarke.

As a student the lighter side of his life became apparent when he gained an enviable reputation for his skill in walking on upturned beer glasses. The final year as a medical student was in many ways a defining time in John's life and occurred towards the end of the Second World War. He was sent to Liverpool railway station to meet a train full of soldiers who had been injured in the Normandy landings and in the fighting in France. On the platform he saw a beautiful young nurse who was helping the wounded from the carriages. This was his first brief encounter with Marjorie, or 'Maggs', his future wife.

On qualifying, John held house appointments in the Liverpool region, before entering National Service in the Army, having had previous cadet corps experience. He became a regimental medical officer in the West African Frontier Force in Ibadan, Nigeria, before the country gained independence. There was no major fighting other than inter-tribal 'scuffles'. With time on his hands, he was able to write several papers on topics relating to tropical medicine after careful field studies. Highly appropriate to his work was 'gaining' personal experience of a nasty bout of malaria. One of his medical consultations took place at the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo, chief of the Yoruba. The grateful ruler suggested that the young doctor might like to see a private collection of carved statues, recently put together for the British Museum. His visit to inspect the figurines was somewhat truncated when the hut holding these treasures was shaken by angry tribesmen. They needed strong reassurance from the Alaafin himself that John was a doctor and not a missionary, and therefore would not be burning these valuable objects!

On the flight back to the UK, the engines failed and the pilot was forced to make an emergency crash landing in the North African desert. Fortunately there were no casualties. The main concern was that there was no water on board, but happily the nearby French Foreign Legion came to their aid. These escapades did not lessen John's enthusiasm for military service, as he continued in the Territorial Army, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. When settled in consultant life he enjoyed spells overseas in Germany and Hong Kong, and was awarded the Territorial Decoration for his services.

John married Marjorie ('Maggs') Bromwell in 1953. When he came back from Africa after two years of National Service he had lost weight and had an extremely sallow complexion, and did not look at all like the handsome final year medical student she knew. She soon had his features and figure back to normal, and continued to work as a nurse during the early years of their marriage.

His surgical mentors were giants in the profession. One was Charles Wells, who started the academic unit in Liverpool and was well known at home and abroad, having strong links with the Mayo Clinic, USA. Another was J B Oldham, who was a perfectionist in surgery, at times outspoken, but respected as an excellent clinical teacher of postgraduate students: he helped many studying for higher diplomas by his careful tuition.

As a continuation of his surgical training, John Humphreys spent two years as a research assistant at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA (from 1957 to 1959), in gastro-intestinal work. He produced many publications on peptic ulcer and was stimulated by the vast array of clinical teaching sessions. Marjorie, and their two very young children, Lee and Jane, went with him, and she was able to help the finances by nursing at nights in the clinic. Returning to the UK, he continued his surgical training at the Walton Hospital until the time he was appointed to his definitive post in Southport.

He continued his pursuit of excellence, regularly attending meetings of the Association of Surgeons, the British Association of Urological Surgeons, the Liverpool and North West Surgical Society and North West Urological Society.

From his very early days John was fond of travel. Before embarking on definitive surgical training he crossed the Atlantic to New York as a ship's surgeon in a merchant vessel of the Cunard Line. Family holidays were spent travelling abroad in the family car. Embarking at Dover, they visited France, Germany, Austria and Italy, following an itinerary with selected hotels, all chosen in advance. The children did not necessarily share their parents' enthusiasm for visiting yet another cathedral, or seeing more architectural delights.

Outside medicine, John enjoyed a wide range of interests. At home he was a good carpenter and, although not a sailor himself, he made a wooden dinghy for Lee and Jane to pursue and enjoy this out of doors activity. He was a keen photographer and in early years developed and printed his own films. He brewed his own beer and made enjoyable wines long before supermarkets sold cheap and reasonable quality wines. His enjoyment of various forms of art was very apparent and included abstract painting. He was a competent artist himself, particularly in line drawing. He created and tended a garden with the same care he lavished on his patients. He took occasional physical exercise in a game of golf, but enjoyed walking much more and was a keen fly-fisherman.

More cultural interests were expressed in the Liverpool Medico-Literary Society and in the pursuit of local, medical and military history, and he was particularly interested in the connections between Liverpool and the slave trade. He was a knowledgeable medical philatelist and in retirement continued as a magistrate in Southport and Liverpool for a further five years. Although a quiet man by nature, he was an excellent raconteur with a marvellous sense of humour.

Their son, Lee, gained a place at Oxford University and obtained a BA in philosophy and physiology: he works in Paris. Jane followed her father into medicine and studied at St George's Hospital. After working as a consultant paediatrician she moved to the Medical Protection Society for 13 years.

When their children left home, John and Marjorie were able to travel further afield to the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, India, Egypt and to revisit the USA. A few of these trips were for scientific meetings with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

John always relied on his wife for everything outside his professional life. She planned home and social activities, family gatherings and entertaining friends and colleagues. As John aged he became increasingly dependent on Marjorie and their mutual affection and loyalty to each other was very apparent. They elected to move from Southport and settled in Handforth. Although this meant leaving many longstanding friends, it had the attraction of being near their married daughter, Jane, and her husband, Dick Cowan, and their family. John and Marjorie enjoyed seeing their grandchildren grow up.

He died on 1 September 2010, predeceasing his wife of 57 years by a few weeks. They both requested small and quiet funeral services. They left a son, Lee, their married daughter, Jane Cowan, and three grandchildren.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2011, 342, 151, Jane Cowan, Lee Humphreys].

The Royal College of Surgeons of London