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Obituary: Professor Sir John Dewhurst

2nd July 1920 – 1st December 2006

Christopher John Dewhurst, Jack, was born in Garstang, Lancashire, son of John Dewhurst, a market gardener and Agnes, a District Nurse. He was brought up in Poulton and was a staunch supporter of Blackpool Football Club in the days when Stanley Matthews dominated the English game. He was educated at St Joseph's College, Dumfries, where he excelled at cricket. He also played for Fylde for whom he took a hat trick on the 31 st July 1937, and also scored a century later that season. He took a further hat trick and scored two more centuries for Fylde in later seasons.

He graduated from the University of Manchester in 1943 MB ChB when he was also the University billiards champion. After six months of house jobs he was conscripted to join the Navy and was promoted to Surgeon Lieutenant, RNVR. He was posted to tank landing craft and took part in the Normandy landings at Sword Beach in 1944. He was later posted to the battleship George V and was de-mobbed in 1946. Returning to Manchester he did a paediatric house job, followed by house officer posts in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. He obtained his Membership in 1949 and was appointed Senior Registrar at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester and then went on to become a Lecturer at Sheffield University in 1951. He obtained his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and was subsequently appointed Senior Lecturer and then Reader, remaining until 1967.

While at Sheffield he found love over the operating table whilst carrying out an emergency caesarean section. The lady who caught his eye was none other than his Anaesthetist Dr Hazel Mary Atkin. That night was also Halloween so he took her a Halloween party which led to him to propose and marry her in 1952. They had two sons Charles and Alan, and one daughter Mary.

He continued to play cricket and encouraged his children, sending them postcards from the various trips and visits abroad that he had to make during his career reminding them to “play a straight bat, to keep the left shoulder forward and the elbow up”. “Never mind about not scoring in the last match, go for a century next time”.

In 1967 he was appointed to the Chair in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Mecca of obstetrics in London, Queen Charlotte's Hospital and the Chelsea Hospital for Women, part of the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in conjunction with the Hammersmith Hospital. This was a major breakthrough for London, to appoint not only a Northerner, but also a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

This appointment coincided with a major expansion of international talent at Queen Charlotte's which subsequently became a leading centre for research and teaching. He recognised the need for sub-specialisation and for the development of highly skilled expertise within the specialty of Obstetrics and Gynaecology following along the lines of his various American and other international colleagues. He encouraged this and soon appointed Stuart Campbell, a young fledgling Registrar from Glasgow working with Ian Donald to become his Lecturer, subsequently Senior Lecturer. Along the same lines followed Ian Craft, John Beazley, Mike Bennett and Brian Trudinger, all to become senior Professors and Heads of Department. He persuaded his colleagues at Queen Charlotte's to appoint Senior Registrars and he himself to be allowed to have Lecturers who could branch out in all the sub-specialty areas that were becoming identified. Thus obstetric ultrasound expanded and progressed, along with feto-maternal medicine and neonatology. Intra-uterine transfusion and the treatment of rhesus incompatibility progressed. Uro-gynaecology and colposcopy developed through infancy into thriving referral clinics. He himself advanced his chosen areas of interest of paediatric endocrinology, inter-sex disorders and paediatric malignancy, but still encouraged adult gynaecological oncology to be a recognised as a developing specialty. He even sent one of his Lecturers (yours truly) to the United States to undertake an American Fellowship Programme before returning to the United Kingdom as the first officially trained sub-specialist in this field.

His ability to run a Department and organise colleagues was unparalleled. He could chair a meeting having allowed argument and some discussion before concluding a compromise to be required, which of course he had decided at the very beginning or even before the meeting began. It was no surprise that in 1975, he was elected as the youngest President, to that date, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

He was knighted for his services to medicine in 1977. He was a superb orator and ambassador, not only for the College and our specialty, but also for our country. He was able to lecture on any subject that he had a particular interest in, often without other aids that we in this day and age increasingly depend upon. He could make a dull and boring subject become alive and interesting even to tired and worried MRCOG students. His ability to carry out research into historical areas led to not only numerous lectures and invitations to speak, but also publications on royal births, the Catholic Church and the iconography of saints and the Italian language. His first lecture on a triple obstetric tragedy high-lighting the obstetric history of Queen Charlotte was a masterpiece. His knowledge of royal confinements was fascinating as were the history of Queen Charlotte's Hospital. His talks were always enthralling and he spoke without notes and this continued whilst he was President at the College. He did, however, practice and on occasions was found to be doing so by his then secretary Paul Barnett. Mind you so did JFK. Both were staunch Catholics with an amazing intellectual agility; I will quickly add there the similarities end. Jack was a staunchly loyal and faithful man. An absolute gentleman, with an enormous respect for people and of course the fairer sex. He would always stand when ladies entered the room, whatever their age, especially for Hazel.

He was appointed to Honorary Fellowship to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1976 and the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland in 1977, Honorary Fellowship to the South African College in 1978 and of the Royal Australian College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1985. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science at Sheffield University in 1977 and an Honorary Doctorate of Medicine in Uraguay in 1980. He was elected to the Society of Pelvic Surgeons in 1982. He retired in 1985 having represented the United Kingdom on the FIGO Committee of Cancer. His retirement dinner was held at the Royal College and was an outstanding occasion.

He subsequently developed his interests in gardening, music and Italian. He and Hazel studied in Italy being the two oldest undergraduates in the class by over 30 years. He developed an interest and skill in needlepoint. He never wore a watch, but was always on time arriving early for events, lectures and appointments, only to wait outside until the appropriate moment. In fact the only occasion when he was late for any appointment was ironically for his funeral. The hearse and subsequently cortege arrived at his house and then the Church 20 minutes late. Hazel was furious, pointing out that Jack would never have approved. He would leave meetings and dinners early explaining that it was past his wife's bed-time when in fact, of course, he meant his own.

Having retired he and Hazel moved to Harefield, Hazels House in Jacks Lane on a canal with a canal boat. He attended St Paul's Catholic Church every morning at 9.15 am for Mass and would always know exactly which Saints Day it was and what was notable about the particular individual Saints that he and Father Cedric Stanley would be celebrating.

He was unfortunate enough to develop a large in-operable brain tumour which probably in retrospect had been growing for some time, leading to some quite out of character forgetful lapses which on occasions some of us would notice and not understand. Regrettably when the tumour was diagnosed surgery was not possible and radiotherapy unsuccessfully. He was cared for at home by Hazel with wonderful support from his family and children and ultimately moved to Cedar House Nursing Home for his last few months. His family and faith sustained him. He died peacefully on 1 st December.

His funeral was a quiet occasion, a Requiem Mass held on 7 th December. It was attended by various Members and Fellows of the College many of whom were his ex-housemen and Senior Registrar. It was a moving occasion. The College, British and world medicine are richer for his major contribution to our specialty. He was one of the kindest and best doctors I and any of us will ever have known and many of us have a major debt of gratitude to him for all his encouragement, guidance and foresight. He had a highly successful life, an excellent first innings and is now looking to a better and eternal second innings which his faith will carry him to. May he rest in peace.

John H Shepherd, January 2007