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Biographical entry Trapnell, John Eliot (1930 - 2011)

MB BChir Cambridge 1954; MD 1966; FRCS 1961.

25 April 1930
5 June 2011
General surgeon


John Eliot Trapnell was a consultant surgeon in Bournemouth with a special interest in the pancreas. He was born in Bristol on 25 April 1930, the son of Eliot Trapnell, a solicitor, and Ruth Manson Trapnell née Fells, a domestic science teacher whose father had been a medical missionary and a surgeon. In addition to his grandfather, two of Trapnell's uncles were also medically qualified. He was educated at the Downs School and then Clifton College, Bristol. He went on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Middlesex Hospital Medical School, qualifying in 1954. At Cambridge he achieved half blues in swimming and water polo.

House officer posts were at the Middlesex Hospital on the medical unit and then the surgical unit at the Central Middlesex Hospital. He was a senior house officer at Leicester Royal Infirmary and then became a medical officer to Masecon Mission Hospital in Kenya. When he returned to the UK, he became a registrar in Bristol at the Frenchay and the Royal Infirmary. He was a prosector in anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, and obtained his primary fellowship in 1958. His senior registrar training was at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and then back in Bristol at Southmead Hospital and Bristol Royal Infirmary. At this stage he was trained by R V Cook, W M Capper, R G Paul, J A Pocock, A G MacPherson, Ashton Millar and J P Mitchell.

In 1965 he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and, armed with this, he set about obtaining a most important qualification in those days, the 'BTA' or 'been to America'. He went to Philadelphia to work with John M Howard, an eminent surgeon who had a particular interest in the pancreas.

From this time onwards Trapnell's main academic and clinical work centred on this organ. In 1966 he published two papers on the subject, in 1967 five papers, and so his research grew exponentially, until he was a leading expert on the subject. He was awarded his MD for his work on pancreatitis, and gave a Hunterian lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1965 on the same subject.

In 1968 he was appointed as a consultant surgeon to the Royal Victoria and West Hants Hospital, Boscombe, Bournemouth. Here he saw out-patients and cared for and operated on in-patients. His responsibilities encompassed Christchurch Hospital and a clinic at Milford on Sea. No European working time directive for him: in one year alone he saw 2,500 patients. Right at the beginning he set up a clinical investigation unit, which was the foundation of the gastrointestinal and endoscopy unit.

He did not however lose sight of the bigger picture, and he continued to publish academic papers throughout this time, mainly on the pancreas and in particular to pancreatitis and its management. The needs of patients were also met by producing instruction leaflets for them - this is commonplace today, but was innovative then.

He saw the importance of the surgical colleges and societies, and was a much-valued contributor to their activities. He was a founding member of the Pancreatic Society and became president in 1980. This was a fitting accolade for a man who had done so much to improve the care of patients with pancreatic disease.

He recognised the importance of surgical education and the maintenance of standards and so became the Royal College of Surgeons' surgical tutor for Bournemouth and then the regional adviser for Wessex. He was appointed a member of the court of examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1981.

He was much in demand as a visiting professor, not just to the glamorous countries, but also to ones that most needed help, such as Ghana and Iraq. He had a particular interest in the overseas doctors training scheme of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He was a member of the working party that looked at which training posts in this country were most suitable for training overseas doctors, with the aim of ensuring they had a fair deal and obtained real training. He was awarded the E K Frey prize of the German and Austrian Intensive Care Society

There were many other important aspects to John's life and these included sailing, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Ringwood School. For much of his adult life he was a lay reader of the Church of England and during his retirement he preached regularly at churches throughout Hampshire and Dorset and beyond. He had health problems over a number of years, but he bore these with good humour.

In 1956 he married Hazel Patricia Anderson and they had four daughters. Hazel died in 1965, and in 1983 he married Penelope Ann Reeves, a nurse. This marriage ended in divorce and he married his third wife, Sandra-Anne ('Sandy'), in 2000.

His alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge, was very important to him, so it was not entirely inappropriate that he should die there peacefully on 5 July 2011, in his sleep, after a happy reunion. He was 81. He was survived by Sandy and his four daughters.

Averil Mansfield

The Royal College of Surgeons of England