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Biographical entry Willson-Pepper, Jack Kenneth (1904 - 2000)

MRCS 1929; FRCS 1935; BA Cambridge 1926; MA MB BChir 1930; LRCP 1929.

1 November 1904
25 January 2000
Urological surgeon


Jack Kenneth Willson-Pepper, or 'John' as he was always known, was a consultant surgeon in York specialising in urology. He was born in Folkestone on 1 November 1904, where his father, Albert Edward Pepper, was a prominent local businessman and three times mayor. His mother was Mary Southee White, the daughter of a vicar. The 'Willson' was added to his name and to those of both his brothers by deed poll to revive his grandmother's maiden name. As a boy John claimed to have been on the Dover cliffs to see Bleriot's first powered aircraft crossing of the Channel. After Tonbridge School, he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, to read modern history, before training in medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London. Here he met Elvira van Tets, a nurse, and they married in 1931.

He held house officer posts at St Thomas's, followed by posts as casualty medical officer and then surgical registrar at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. In 1934, Willson-Pepper moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as demonstrator in anatomy at the medical school and surgical registrar at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, where he was much influenced by R J Whillan and F C Pybus. During visits to Continental clinics, he spent several weeks with Zaayer of the Oud Akademische Zeikenhuis, Leiden, where John assisted in preparing Zaayer's paper on the surgery of the oesophagus, read before a surgical congress at Madrid in 1932.

In 1936, the Willson-Peppers moved to York, where John and Elvira were to live out their lives. Initially, he joined the practice of Gerald Hughes, Arthur Lister and Charles MacKenzie, family doctors, but with strong specialist interests. John's sights were on surgery and in 1937 he obtained the post of honorary assistant surgeon at the County Hospital, York, alongside his student colleague from St Thomas's, Harold Conyers - they remained close friends and supportive colleagues until 1964.

War saw him as a surgical specialist in the RAMC with the rank of Major, spending 18 months in Nigeria and another year in an English military hospital. In 1944, John was one of the first Allied military personnel to enter liberated Brussels. For his medical work there he was awarded the Croix Militaire (premiere classe) by the Belgian government.

Back in York, John resigned his general practice partnership in order to concentrate on surgery, especially in urology. When the NHS started, he was appointed consultant surgeon to the York area. Arthur Visick had already established York as a centre for gastric surgery, but he died within a year, leaving Willson-Pepper and Conyers, soon to be joined by Hall to carry on the flame, with Pulvertaft, the radiologist. They co-operated by continuing to register all their gastric patients and founded the York Peptic Ulcer Research Trust, a medical research charity, to ensure that the studies continued. The place of Roux-en-Y anastomosis in the relief of postgastrectomy symptoms was explored. John Goligher had arrived in Leeds by the time that the York clinic was becoming disillusioned with gastrectomy, and the York surgeons were ripe for the study of alternatives. Thus the Leeds-York trial (1958 to 1979) flourished, the first prospective randomised surgical trial to evaluate the relative merits of partial gastrectomy compared to truncal vagotomy plus antrectomy (with gastroduodenal anastomosis) and truncal vagotomy plus posterior gastro-enterostomy for the treatment of duodenal ulcer. John was the last survivor of the original contributors.

John kept up with his Fellowship of the Royal Society of Medicine, and became a Fellow of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, and an associate member of the British Association of Urological Surgeons (BAUS). After an article in 1945 for the British Medical Journal on surgery in West Africa, his publications were in the field of urology, on renal actinomycosis, calcification in a polycystic kidney, the permeability of the urethral mucosa, and vesico-uterine fistula, and he contributed to the BAUS national research into phaeochromocytoma. He was proud to be President of York Medical Society from 1958 to 1959.

Throughout his time in York, John was active in the city's social life, in the Georgian Society, and many other local activities. In 1942, on brief leave, he reached home early one morning to find his fine Georgian house in Bootham a wreck, after a night time bomb. Amazingly, despite total destruction of the house, everyone sheltering under the kitchen table escaped unscathed. John and Elvira took this as a sign that they should spend the rest of their lives in York, so when they could they bought another Georgian house up the road, and stayed.

John was deeply involved with his patient's plight and suffering. When a colleague and friend had serious complications after a partial cystectomy, John's long-standing duodenal ulcer got much worse. He had been already of a firm conviction that he would retire whilst still in possession of his faculties (as he put it, "Unlike some of my senior colleagues"), so he went early, in 1964, and was blessed by a further long and fruitful time with his beloved Elvira. He was justly famous for his quiet friendliness, his courtesy, and his Edwardian good manners. He had deep insights, not without criticism, and could bestow great wisdom to his juniors. Poetry was a special joy and later in life John privately published a volume of his own poems. In 1991, he entered into an erudite correspondence with his MP concerning the danger of rabies entering England via the proposed Channel Tunnel.

After 67 years of happy marriage he was a wonderful nurse to his dear wife in her last long illness, and characteristically insisted in keeping her at home. He was trying to rehabilitate himself for continued survival without her when his own last illness came rather unexpectedly seven months later - he died from heart failure and peritonitis in the urological ward of York District Hospital on 25 January 2000. He leaves a son, a daughter (Mrs Jasmine Dyer), four grandchildren, and a great grandson.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Yorkshire Evening Press 25 January 2000; BMJ 2000 320 1478, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England