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Biographical entry John, Howell Thomas (1921 - 1979)

DFC 1944; MRCS and FRCS 1956; MB BS Durham 1953; MS 1962.

9 July 1921
New Tredegar
5 October 1979
General surgeon


'Johnnie' John was born on 9 July 1921 in New Tredegar. He was educated at Bedwellty Grammar School. Reports have it that he was a talented scholar with a reluctance to apply his maximum effort either to work or to play. On leaving school in 1940 he entered the Royal Air Force and trained as a navigator. He served in 18 Squadron of No 2 Group in Blenheim bombers in anti-shipping strikes and in low-level bombing sorties over France, the Low Countries and West Germany. He took part in the air battles to relieve Egypt and in 1943 he was appointed personal assistant to Air Vice-Marshal (Sir) Harry Broadhurst. Later he returned home as special operator in 114 Squadron of 100 Group. His duties in Mosquito aircraft were deliberately to court attack by German night-fighters, and to detect the radar wavelength they were using and thus be able to use counter measures. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The peace-time Royal Air Force failed to retain Johnnie's interest, and in February 1948 he applied to King's College, Durham, to enter the Medical School. He had intended to study medicine on leaving school, but volunteered for active service. He started his medical career in 1948, aged 27, with the rank of Wing-Commander, retired. No longer did he prove to be a reluctant scholar, far from finding it difficult to resume academic studies, it was he who was giving fellow students anatomy demonstrations and tutorials. In October 1950 he entered University College Hospital with a Goldsmid Entrance Scholarship. Throughout his clinical years he was first in all student examinations and won the S R Roberts Prize, the Liston Gold Medal for senior clinical surgery and the Atchison Exhibition at the end of his third year. He qualified MB BS Durham with 2nd class honours in 1953.

He was house physician to Professor Max Rosenheim and house surgeon to Professor Robin Pilcher, then casualty surgical officer during which tenure he passed his Primary. He was then surgical assistant to Julian Taylor and, in June 1956, he passed the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. As senior registrar at Bristol Royal Infirmary he spent a year at Exeter where he met and married his wife, Tessa. He also spent a year in America as fellow in vascular surgery at Harvard and assistant to Richard Warren at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.

In 1962 he was appointed lecturer in surgery at Bristol University and in 1963 he was appointed an honorary consultant surgeon to the Bristol Royal Infirmary. In 1964 he was appointed consultant surgeon to the Bath Clinical Area as it then was. He worked first at St Martin's Hospital and later the Royal United Hospital, visiting also the peripheral hospitals at Devizes, Malmesbury, Melksham and Shepton Mallet.

'Johnnie' had a prodigious capacity for working long hours and the length and range of his surgical lists were a source of constant amazement to his colleagues. He was never happier than when in the operating theatre, often in the long middle-hours of the night dealing with emergency vascular cases. Together with his ENT colleagues he pioneered new techniques in total oesophagectomy. He was a highly intelligent man who possessed an immense capacity to inspire loyalty and confidence in patients, nurses and junior doctors. Also he was a gifted teacher and he assumed responsibility for the training of the junior surgical staff. His Sunday morning teaching round was a regular feature of life in the surgical ward of the Royal United Hospital. The high pass rate of candidates from Bath in their Fellowship was due to his dedication. His concern with training was recognised nationally and he was Chairman of the Educational Advisory Committee of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland.

He was a born leader and an able administrator. He served on the Bath Hospital Management Committee and, on reorganisation, became consultant member of the Bath District Management Team. He was a member of the Central Manpower Committee for several years, of the Specialist Advisory Committee in General Surgery, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Editorial Board of the British journal of surgery. He was examiner in pathology in the primary examination for the Fellowship and an active member of the Peripheral Vascular Club, the Oesophageal Club, the Milnes Walker Surgical Travelling Club and a member of the Société Internationale de Chirurgie.

He died on 5 October 1979 survived by his wife and three children. In his will he bequeathed a prize for the best care presentation by a junior at the monthly combined round and a memorial fund was set up to provide opportunities for junior staff to travel and undertake research.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1979, 2, 1230; Lancet 1979, 2, 1146].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England