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Biographical entry Orr, Neil Wallace Morison (1931 - 2012)

BChir Cambridge 1956; MB 1957; MD 1963; MChir 1966; FRCS 1966.

8 August 1931
Neyyoor, India
26 March 2012
General surgeon


Neil Orr was a much-loved general surgeon at Colchester Hospital known for his superlative surgical technique, his charm and unfailing courtesy, his questioning of surgical dogma and his immaculate dress, complete with a daily button hole picked fresh from his garden.

He was born in Neyyoor, south India, the son of a medical missionary. He was educated at Loretto School, Edinburgh, where he became head boy, and proceeded to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences. He then attended St Thomas's Hospital Medical School, graduating in 1957.

After house jobs and in lieu of National Service, he broke off further medical training in order to spend two and a half years in the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey. Among other responsibilities, he was veterinary surgeon to the huskies, which gave him the opportunity to pursue research leading to several publications and the award of an MD on the subject of food and water requirements of men and dogs in the Antarctic. He was awarded the Polar medal for his contribution to increased knowledge of the polar region.

Returning to St Thomas', he passed the FRCS and became a registrar and then senior registrar to the surgical unit, from where he published research into the gastrointestinal complications of aortic aneurysm surgery and techniques of intestinal anastomosis.

In 1969 he was appointed as a consultant surgeon to Colchester Hospital. Neil quickly made his mark in his new appointment. He questioned accepted dogma, but always politely and with great charm, which led to him getting results. He was a keen exponent of day case surgery, which in the early 1970s was far from common practice. He persevered however, and the new hospital was built with a day unit thanks to his endeavours. He challenged the use of surgical masks in the operating theatre and published a controversial paper in the Annals, showing that over a six-month period when all operations in one theatre were performed without the surgeon wearing a mask there was no increase in infection ('Is a mask necessary in the operating theatre?' Ann R Coll Surg Eng. 1981 Nov;63[6]:390-2). This led to considerable debate and controversy, but time has shown that masks are not essential for most procedures.

His background of his early years in India led him to forge a link with the Christian Medical College in Vellore, south India, and over the years many young Indian surgeons visited Colchester as part of their training and in return Colchester consultants profited by visiting Vellore for educational purposes.

Neil had wide surgical interests beyond the hurly burly of clinical practice. He was a member of the Court of Examiners of the College for many years, archivist of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, secretary of the North East Metropolitan Surgical Society and a keen member of the Surgical Sixty Club, being secretary for many years. He became chairman of the district management team and was a member of the North East Essex Health Authority.

In 1992 he was appointed to the board of prison visitors at Chelmsford Prison, which later became the independent board of prison monitors, of which he was chairman for five years. During this time he was instrumental in setting up the family visiting centre at the prison, something of which he was especially proud.

In retirement he became a volunteer guide at the Hunterian Museum and gave conducted tours on a regular basis. He was a keen sailor, owning a 42-foot yawl named Gigi, an enthusiastic gardener and a water-colour artist of considerable merit. But above all, he was a devoted family man. He married Sarah, a St Thomas' nurse, in 1968 and they had two daughters, Lucy and Kate. In his last years, when suffering from a carcinoma of the oesophagus, he was besotted by his young grandson Christopher, known as 'Kit'. Facing his illness with great stoicism, Neil Orr died on 26 March 2012, aged 80.

Sir Barry Jackson

The Royal College of Surgeons of England