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Biographical entry Parsons, Thomas Arthur (1939 - 2013)

MB BS London 1964; MRCS LRCP 1964; FRCS 1969.

29 July 1939
31 December 2013
Orthopaedic surgeon


Tom Parsons was an orthopaedic surgeon in Brisbane, Australia. He was born in Liverpool, one of three sons of Thomas, a printer, and Doris, a tailor. His grandfather was a Newfoundland sailor who had settled in the port city. Tom was educated at Holt High School, Liverpool, and, like many of his era, decided on a medical career almost by accident. He had no family background in medicine and a minimal knowledge of what a medical life would entail, but he had the ability and the enlightened changes in the health and education systems made by the British government following the end of the Second World War, made a medical career socially and financially possible.

He entered University College Hospital (UCH) in 1959. It was here that he met Bronwen Beecham, who would become a psychiatrist and Tom's lifelong companion. After graduating in 1964, Tom held pre-registration appointments at UCH and West Middlesex Hospital, before moving to the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, and then Liverpool for his general surgical training.

Later in life Tom claimed that his choice of orthopaedics was determined by his reading an article stating that orthopaedics was the least popular discipline amongst surgical trainees and therefore the easiest to enter. However, the enthusiasm for his work, which he exhibited throughout his career, suggests that he was perhaps being somewhat modest. His orthopaedic training was at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry with Denis Wainwright, followed by a period at the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary.

He was appointed to a consultant post at Stoke-on-Trent with an interest in paediatrics, but had already arranged a one year fellowship in paediatric orthopaedics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, and he took leave of absence to undertake that fellowship. However, shortly after returning to England in 1974, his Newfoundland heritage drew him back to Canada, where he spent seven years in private practice based at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Barrie, Ontario.

Tom was one of the first to recognise and promote the potential of endoscopic techniques in orthopaedics. His desire to be involved in this, coupled with a commitment to teaching, led him, in 1982, to leave Barrie and private practice to take up an appointment in a public hospital (the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Hospital) in Brisbane. He went on to become director of orthopaedics at the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

By now he had a particular interest in the shoulder and devised new arthroscopic techniques for operations on it. In collaboration with instrument manufacturers, he devised an arthroscopic procedure to re-attach the labrum to the glenoid in order to treat recurrent dislocation of the shoulder. Tom never had much enthusiasm for the tedious task of shepherding his work through the formalities of the scientific press, and his contributions are mostly remembered by his colleagues, those who attended conference presentations and generations of surgical trainees. Eventually one would carry out bilateral arthroscopic shoulder repairs on Tom.

Tom was a life-long migraine sufferer, and in 1997 their frequency and severity was such that he had to relinquish operating. He spent the last few years in practice in an advisory and non-operative role. Nevertheless, this had some significant advantages. There are a number of orthopaedic surgeons in the Brisbane region who were recipients of guidance and advice from Tom, which became possible became of his more relaxed time constraints. An enlightened health system might benefit if more surgeons could spend their last few years with a smaller direct clinical commitment and with more time to teach and advise.

After retiring in 2003, Tom and Bron spent time travelling in Australia, Europe (to keep in contact with former colleagues) and the USA and New Zealand, where their two sons live. They also pursued their interest in theatre and opera with enthusiasm.

Tom was reserved, thoughtful, gently spoken and well-dressed - more like the caricature of an English gentleman than an Australian orthopaedic surgeon! He insisted that his junior colleagues treated patients and other staff with the same courtesy as he always did. However, in defence of surgical standards or his patients' welfare he could, to put it euphemistically, be uncompromising with hospital administrators.

In 2006 Tom developed the first signs of the degenerative neurological condition which would eventually prove fatal. In retrospect, the diagnosis was olivopontocerebellar degeneration but, sadly, for most of his illness, Tom was denied the limited solace that an accurate diagnosis and its associated prognosis might have provided. He bore his increasing disabilities with great fortitude, and Bron worked tirelessly and with determination to make the best of his final years.

Tom died at home, surrounded by family, a few hours before the dawn of 2014. He was 74. He was survived by his wife Bronwen and sons Jeremy and Stuart.

Peter Bore

The Royal College of Surgeons of England