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Biographical entry Goodfellow, John William (1927 - 2011)

MRCS 1951; FRCS 1957; MB BS London 1951; MS 1982; LRCP 1951.

31 October 1927
4 August 2011
Orthopaedic surgeon


John William Goodfellow, or 'JWG' as he was widely known, was a consultant surgeon at Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Oxford. With his death British orthopaedics lost one of its most distinguished practitioners. He was born in London on 31 October 1927, the son of Percy, an actuary, and Violet. His mother died when John was in his early teens, and his father later remarried. John was educated at Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford-on-Avon, and later at Wellington School in Somerset, where he was an enthusiastic rugby player and runner.

His medical training was at Guy's, where he was much influenced by his early mentor Sir John Conybeare. It is an indication of the bond which developed between the two doctors, both with a great interest in art and architecture, that Sir John left JWG a painting by Lucien Pissaro, the son of the more famous father, in his will. John's interest in art and buildings was to prove life-long. A city walk with him was always informative and accompanied by his regular exhortation to look upwards to see the buildings above.

John spent his National Service years as a captain in the RAMC, serving with the 14th/20th King's Hussars, a regiment he found amusingly straitlaced and which seemed always to participate in battles when they were almost done. When John moved to Oxford for his training, he met his second mentor, the charismatic Josep Trueta. Again a close friendship developed with the Catalonian surgeon and his family, and he was his first assistant from 1962 to 1965.

Appointed consultant at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in 1965, JWG developed an increasing interest in the mechanics of joints. Abetted by his friend and colleague, the pathologist Peter Bullough, he sought the expertise of a young Irish lecturer, John O'Connor, to help solve the conundrum of hip joint loading: how to explain a cone-shaped acetabulum and a spherical femoral head? Since no one had ready answers, the basis was laid for a project funded by the Arthritis Research Campaign. This was the start of 45 years of collaboration and friendship.

The research group identified how the shape asymmetry facilitated cartilage lubrication, nourishment and gave protection from arthritis. A better understanding of load-bearing at the hip and the weight-bearing characteristics of the menisci in the knee led the group to consider the possibility of replacing torn menisci. John, aware of the problems with current knee replacements, suggested it might be better to use a gliding polyethylene meniscal component in knee replacement. By 1974 a provisional replacement had been inserted experimentally.

John was very conscious of the ethical risks inherent in a surgeon liaising with a manufacturer and his careful, progressive studies serve as a model for others. The design was not released for general use its efficacy and longevity had been demonstrated. Ten thousand surgeons around the world have now attended training courses. The concept of meniscal insertion into a joint replacement has been extended to other joints. Right up until his death John remained heavily involved in the research projects which continued to flow from his initial inspiration.

When appointed to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, John shared a firm with Edgar Somerville and together they were responsible for the bulk of children's orthopaedics in the region. Following Edgar's retirement, Michael Benson replaced him on the firm. It was the happiest of liaisons: while Benson gained most, it was refreshing that the senior man was always willing to listen to other opinion and indeed to modify his own view occasionally when argument (upon which he flourished) proved persuasive. Thirty years ago John was asked to visit Malta to help with the care of children with orthopaedic problems. He went twice yearly initially, but came to alternate with Benson. As time passed, John's interest in joint replacement increased and he became less involved in children's care.

In 1966 John was an ABC (American-British-Canadian) fellow of the American Orthopaedic Association. He was secretary of the British Orthopaedic Association (BOA) from 1974 to 1975 and president in 1989. He oversaw the inspirational appointment of David Adams as chief executive. Together with David, he was also the instigator of British Orthopaedic News, noting in the first edition edited by Chris Ackroyd that: 'Every school has its magazine, most commercial organisations have a house journal and now the BOA has British Orthopaedic News'.

Just as John proved a wise man at the helm of the BOA, he was to prove an outstanding editor of the British volume of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery from 1990 to 1995. He succeeded Alan Apley and served with David Evans and Sir Rodney Sweetnam as his successive chairmen. With them he was responsible for many changes in format, number of issues and overseas links. He was an excellent wordsmith and could see effortlessly through one research paper's weaknesses, but also recognise another's strengths.

John had a copious research output, much in liaison with his close friend, John O'Connor. In 1980 he co-edited Scientific foundations of orthopaedics and traumatology (London, Heinemann), bringing together the many strands of science, including histopathology and biomechanics, which should underpin a surgeon's skills. In 2006 he co-authored Unicompartmental arthroplasty with the Oxford knee (Oxford, Oxford University Press). It is a great delight to report that this has been reprinted by his son Tim (under the imprimatur of his own publishing company) - a fine tribute from son to father.

Of course, and primarily, John was a practising surgeon. Anyone who worked with JWG, heard him lecture, discussed the indications for an operation or helped him operate knows he was a very complete doctor, caring and meticulous, and willing to dedicate as much time as needed to examine, explain or guide. The greatest compliment he paid to any colleague was to note that he/she was a 'good opinion'. His patients were as devoted to him as he was to their care. His sense of humour was a delight. Travelling through snow to work one winter, he stopped to push an elderly man's car from a ditch. The grateful chap noted that he would be late for an appointment with a Mr Goodfellow. John reassured him that the surgeon would probably be late as well.

Outside medicine, sailing became an essential escape from the rigours of surgical life. John sailed his favourite boat Larie for over 15 years, initially from the Isle of Wight (where he regularly competed in the Round the Island Race) and later from its berth in La Rochelle in western France.

It is not surprising that the qualities he brought to work applied equally at home. Before his first wife Anne died in 1985, John and his children, Tim and Allison, nursed her devotedly, all taking time from work to make this possible. Tragically, John's younger colleague Greg Houghton was killed in a cycling accident. From this tragedy arose one happy consolation: Greg's widow Hélène and John later married, and each proved devoted to the other. He died on 4 August 2011, after a long battle with leukaemia. He was 83.

John was an innovator, teacher, scientist, splendid colleague and friend. It is sad to report that his honorary fellowship of the BOA arrived on his doorstep the day after he died.

Michael Benson
John O'Connor

Sources used to compile this entry: [Clin Orthop Relat Res (2012) 470:1795-6].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England