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Biographical entry Watson, Neil Alexander (1944 - 2009)

MRCS 1967; FRCS 1971; MB BS London 1967; LRCP 1967.

13 February 1944
Oxford, UK
4 October 2009
Oxford, UK
Artist, Hand surgeon and Orthopaedic surgeon


Neil Watson was a hand surgeon in Oxford and Milton Keynes, and later a successful artist. He was born on 13 February 1944 at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Neil's father, John Stuart Ferra Watson, and paternal grandfather were both Guy's-trained doctors. As his father served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Neil's parents were overseas for most of his childhood, and, after the age of five, he saw them during only one school holiday each year. The other holidays he would spend with his grandparents or with various great aunts in the UK.

With the help of a British Army bursary, Neil was educated at St Edward's School in Oxford, which proved 'a marvellous experience' for him. Although he already had an interest in the arts, probably inherited from his 'extremely creative' mother Rosemary (née Underhill), St Edward's exposed him to art and music on a greater scale. He played the violin in the school orchestra and greatly enjoyed the chapel organ and choir. He described these formative years 'as if I was in paradise'. He also developed a love of rowing but, because of the extremely high standard at the school at the time, he had to be content with being a member of the second or third VIII.

He originally planned a career in architecture but, through the influence of a biology teacher, he finally chose medicine. Although offered a place at St John's College, Cambridge, he chose to go straight to Guy's, a decision he later regretted as he 'missed out on the Cambridge experience'. First, however, he spent several months in Florence and Rome, developing his drawing and painting, and learning Italian.

In 1962, Neil entered Guy's Hospital Medical School, and found the next five years 'immensely exciting'. Rowing became very important to him and, in the summer of 1963, he represented the boat club at Henley Royal Regatta. He was also an active member of the arts club and the theatre club, for which he designed sets. He bought 'beer and petrol' and even 'a fiercely fast car' by selling etchings and paintings. One of his pen and ink drawings of the hospital featured on the cover of Guy's Hospital Gazette.

In his clinical years, he was greatly influenced by the senior orthopaedic surgeon, Tim Stamm, who he described as 'an absolutely phenomenal surgeon'. After graduating in 1967, he was appointed orthopaedic house surgeon at Guy's, during which period he married, and followed this by a series of house appointments in Truro in Cornwall. He then returned to Guy's on the junior surgical registrar rotation (when Sir Hedley Atkins was handing over to Lord McColl as professor of surgery). He found working with the urologists, F R Kilpatrick and Hugh Kinder, and the neurosurgeon, Murray Falconer (at the Maudsley), especially valuable. After two years as a registrar in Guildford (becoming an FRCS in 1971), he was appointed orthopaedic registrar at Oxford under Robert Duthie, one of the most influential orthopaedic surgeons in the UK.

In 1977, a travelling fellowship from the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers enabled him to spend time with several innovative hand and plastic surgeons in Melbourne, Australia, where he learned microsurgery and wrote several research papers. He returned to Oxford as a senior registrar.

His first consultant position was a joint appointment between the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and Banbury, where he acquired an operating microscope, and started carrying out peripheral nerve surgery and teaching microsurgery courses. Unfortunately, at Oxford, Duthie was of the opinion that 'we're all generalists here', and Neil's efforts to expand his work in nerve surgery met with resistance. Sadly, during this period, his marriage broke up, but he was able to maintain a close relationship with his three children.

When the post of clinical reader in orthopaedics at Oxford became vacant, he was appointed and also elected to a fellowship at Green College. He specialised in surgery for rheumatoid arthritis, which he found particularly rewarding, but he was disappointed that his planned research projects were not fully achieved. After two or three years, a new hospital opened in Milton Keynes, and the opportunity of developing a new type of consultant-led service was so appealing that he accepted a position there and began to specialise in hand surgery.

During these years at Oxford and Milton Keynes, he wrote about 50 scientific communications and three books on hand surgery. As a registrar, he had written Practical management of musculo-skeletal emergencies (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1985), and as a consultant, Hand injuries and infections (London, Gower Medical, 1986). He then co-edited Methods and concepts in hand surgery (London, Butterworths, 1986).

At a surgical conference, he met an American woman who ran a hand and rehabilitation centre in North Carolina. Neil soon made the momentous decision to relocate to the US, with the intention of obtaining a license to practise hand surgery there. However, the medical board of North Carolina made it so difficult for him that he made the even more momentous decision to abandon his surgical career and revert to his first love, drawing and painting. Even though he was thereafter relatively financially insecure, he never regretted the decision to begin his new career as a 'creative person'.

For the next 20 or more years he painted, taught workshops in drawing and painting, and made several CDs of his own improvisational music. These endeavours went well, and he found he was earning $45,000 to $50,000 a year selling paintings in galleries. The highlight of his artistic career was when he held an exhibition of his work, 'Architecture observed', in Venice in 1996. For three months he exhibited 135 of his works, which were viewed by almost 10,000 people. One visitor was a Venetian writer, Renato Pestriniero, and together they published a book of Neil's paintings with commentaries by Pestriniero, Seeking Venice (Vianello Libri, 2001), which became available in Italian, French and English.

Neil also found time to learn to fly, partly by using simulation, which gave him the idea of developing a simulator for microsurgical techniques. He received a grant of $250,000 from the US National Institutes of Health, with which he developed realistic layered replications of the rat femoral artery, vein and sciatic nerve. He became co-director of the Microsurgical Training Institute in Santa Barbara, California, where surgeons came from all over the world.

When his second marriage was dissolved, he decided to move to the San Francisco bay area, where he continued painting and, for periods, was more active in teaching and in writing about art. He taught intermittently at Cal Poly and at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco (now the Academy of Art University). His painting evolved from being realistic and conventional to more abstract, eventually combining images with the written word, a form of art he termed 'diagraphica'. He brought out several CDs, including The drawing spirit: developing the art of your drawing hand (2003) and Trigraphica: a drawing trilogy (2007?), and a book Drawing - developing a lively and expressive approach (Neil Watson, 2007). He also rekindled his early interest in music.

In late 2008 he became engaged again, but the development of a brain tumour curtailed this plan and, having returned to Oxford to be near two of his children, he died there on 4 October 2009 at the age of 65. He was survived by his three children, Ben, Anita and Hugh, and his two former wives.

David K C Cooper

The Royal College of Surgeons of England