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Biographical entry McFarland, John Bryan (1930 - 2013)

MB ChB Liverpool 1954; FRCS 1960; MD 1964; ChM 1966; FRCS Edin 1983.

17 September 1930
5 October 2013
General surgeon


John McFarland was a consultant surgeon in Liverpool. He was born on 17 September 1930 in Rodney Street, Liverpool, into a well-established medical family. His father, Bryan McFarland, was professor of orthopaedics at the city's university; his mother, Ethel McFarland née Ashton, was also a doctor. John spent his early childhood in Liverpool, but was probably as often in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey, where his father built a holiday home 'Bryn Ion', which overlooked the ninth tee of the Holyhead golf course. John's early schooling was at Trearddur House School, where no doubt he began his long affection and interest in the sea and sailing. Senior school followed at Shrewsbury, from where he entered Liverpool Medical School in 1948.

He qualified in 1954 and, after house posts, began his National Service, as was the norm at that time. He spent the next two years serving in the RAMC, mainly in Kenya at the height of the Mau Mau troubles. While in Kenya he often acted as an anaesthetist, which might explain why he was always kinder to and more tolerant of his anaesthetic colleagues than many others with a surgical leaning. He never talked about his time in the Army: like many ex-service men, he may have felt that those who didn't have similar experiences would never be able to understand, particularly the actions, deprivations and necessities entailed in military service, in what was effectively a war zone.

Returning to civilian life, he became a demonstrator in anatomy. During this time he met a childhood acquaintance, Meryl McKie Reid, the daughter of Andrew McKie Reid, an ophthalmic surgeon. It turned into a love match and they duly married in 1962.

Surgical training in Liverpool followed at Sefton General, Alder Hey, the Royal Infirmary and, of course, the Royal Southern Hospital. The opportunity to spend two years in America arose, then considered essential for an academic or teaching hospital career in many disciplines. He went to work in Owen H Wangensteen's department at the University of Minnesota. His research was centred on gastric freezing as a method for reducing gastric bleeding associated with peptic ulcers. This was a major area of upper gastrointestinal research at that time inspired, particularly in Liverpool, by the work of the Rod Gregory and his discovery of the hormone gastrin.

In the early autumn of 1963, John and Meryl travelled from Minnesota down to New Mexico by Greyhound bus, a journey that took the best part of three days. By chance, a fellow traveller was Lee Harvey Oswald, the reputed assassin of President Kennedy in November 1963. John never said much about this episode, but both he and Meryl were questioned by the FBI and figure in the Warren Report. Whenever any new investigation occurred into that tragic event, the American agents from the Liverpool consulate would appear to re-question John and Meryl.

John wrote up his research and unusually did this as two separate theses, for his MD and ChM. He furthered his academic leanings by being appointed as a senior lecturer in surgery with an honorary consultant contract, based at the Liverpool Royal infirmary in Frank Stock's department. It might have been thought that this indicated a serious intent to follow an academic career, leading to a professorial position like his father, but John finished his training and settled upon an NHS teaching hospital career.

In 1968 John moved across to consultant status. He was first, for a year, at the Northern and Walton hospitals, and then went to the Royal Southern Hospital, where he remained until it closed in 1978. Thereafter he transferred to the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital. He was a popular teacher of both undergraduates and trainees, renowned for his diagnostic prowess, surgical dexterity, kindness, hospitality and subtle, quiet sense of humour.

He never sought power or influence in medical politics either locally or nationally, but preferred to devote his extra medical energies to teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This brought college involvement as a regional tutor, and as a member of the Court of Examiners (from 1973 to 1979). Other, even more prestigious, peer recognition of his qualities and achievements as a surgeon did come along. He was elected to the Liverpool XX Club, and was one of two Liverpool members of the Moynihan Chirurgical Club. He became a James IV traveller in 1976. This opportunity afforded him the chance to travel to Asia, including in Afghanistan, India and Iran, and other countries on the north west frontier to teach, lecture and operate. Subsequently he became a full member of the James IV Association of Surgeons.

His hospitality was always convivial and relaxed. Visitors to his lovely family home in Fulwood Park might be invited to take a sauna, which John had built in the cellar. Unfortunately, the pine wood, bought from a local timber merchant in Liverpool, had not been properly seasoned. Guests were advised to try to avoid the hot resins and oils that continually seeped and dropped from the ceiling.

John decided to retire at the relatively early age of 61 in 1991, a conscious decision having seen his own father die whilst still in harness at a similar age. Immediately following his retirement party at the Royal he went down to Liverpool Marina and sailed off with his son Jonathan into retirement on the next full tide in his Vancouver 32 Nuada.

The next four years were spent sailing around the Mediterranean, sometimes with Jonathan, but often alone, before settling in Soller, Majorca, where he bought an apartment in the port. Here he had built his last Nuada, a Menorcan Llaut. Sadly he didn't get many opportunities to enjoy this vessel as his health problems began to limit his mobility.

In early retirement, John devoted much time to teaching and operating in a small hospital in Kerala, India.

There are many anecdotes involving such a colourful character, but John will be best remembered for his generosity of spirit, both ethereal and actual, his knowledge, skill and humanity as a general surgeon, his gifts as a teacher, his genuine pride and pleasure in the success of those he helped to train, and his unfailing courtesy and friendship to the many he encountered during a long life.

John McFarland died on 5 October 2013, aged 83. Predeceased by his ex-wife Meryl, who died in 2000, he was survived by his son Jonathan.

Sir John Temple

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2014 348 7522; The Telegraph 21 November 2013].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England