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Obituary: John Henry McKnight (Jack) Pinkerton

Tribute by Dr Paul P Fogarty FRCOG, Senior Vice President

I first met in 1980 as a final year medical Student when he was then the RCOG Senior VP. He died, after a short illness, on 22nd September 2013.

Early years

Jack Pinkerton was born in Belfast on the 5th June 1920 and was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and then Queen’s University, where he graduated in Medicine, with Honours in 1943.

He saw active service as surgeon Lieutenant in The Royal Navy where he was posted in Malta, clearing mines in the Mediterranean during 1945 to 1947.

Soon after leaving the navy he bought an old farmhouse in Malta, where he and his wife, Flo, entertained their friends for many years.

He kept strong links in Malta and indeed he served on the selection board of the appointment of the Head of Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology in University of Malta - Professor Charles Savona-Ventura.

Returning to Belfast and the Royal Maternity Hospital he completed his postgraduate training in obstetrics and gynaecology and gained the MRCOG in 1949. He married Florence McKinstry, also a doctor before a posting as a senior lecturer in Jamaica where he helped to establish the department in the newly formed Commonwealth University of the West Indies. His six years in the West Indies were to have a lasting influence on his subsequent career and his lifelong interest in the training of doctors in developing countries.

In 1956, while still in Jamaica, Jack was awarded a prestigious Rockefeller Research Fellowship and spent a year at Harvard, undertaking fundamental scientific investigation in human reproduction.

In 1959, on invitation, he accepted a post in London as Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the newly formed Postgraduate Medical School based at Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospitals and elevated to the FRCOG in 1960.

Blair Bell

In December of 1960, Jack wrote to Sir Arthur Bell, then President of the College, requesting use of the new College building in Regent’s Park for his proposed scientific research club – “This club is intended to bring together workers engaged in scientific research in obstetrics and gynaecology for informal discussion on their work at intervals of approximately three months".

The Society was known as the ‘Research Club’ until after its first meeting in April 1962, at which Sir Arthur Bell was elected ‘President’ (later Honorary Chairman), Professor Pinkerton as Chair, and Carl Wood as Secretary, with a committee of eight including Professor Ian Donald. It was agreed to name the society after Professor William Blair-Bell in honour of his work in the field of reproduction.

Council did indeed approve the request to host meetings of this society, although the issue of ‘refreshments’ reared its head rather frequently in letters from Carl Wood to the RCOG during the early years: only Members and Fellows of the College were permitted to purchase ‘beer and sandwiches’ on the College premises at this time, causing a few problems and some quite creative solutions! I believe that Professor Pinkerton would have been proud of the position that the Blair Bell Society holds in the academic life of the College now.


Three years later, in 1963, he returned to his native Belfast and succeeded Professor CHG MacAfee to the Foundation Chair of Midwifery and Gynaecology at Queen’s University, a post he held for the next 22 years until his retirement in 1985.

He was a Chairman of the Specialty Committee of the Northern Ireland Council for Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education.

During which time it seemed as there was no doubt he was in control of Northern Ireland obstetrics – Alan Ritchie said to Robin years later "that if he wanted you to work in Rathlin Island, that was your destiny like it or not!"

In the history of Belfast’s Royal Maternity hospital, the name of Jack Pinkerton must stand tall. Professor Pinkerton gave more than two decades of service to the hospital, contributing greatly to its development and improving the standard of care for so many patients, and was instrumental in establishing chair of Neonatology.

Under Jack’s direction postgraduate training in obstetrics flourished and in spite of all the local unrest it was a proud legacy to have. Jack did run a very good department and he had an ability to attract the great and the good to Royal Maternity Hospital, and put it on the world map.

As I travel the world I am struck by the great number of senior staff who trained in Northern Ireland, and are grateful to Jack Pinkerton. Over a 20 year period, he attracted and trained over 120 doctors from developing countries; many of whom now hold senior academic appointments throughout the world.

During his heyday, 10 of his Senior Lecturers went on to gain Chairs worldwide:

  • Knox Rithchie, Tom Baskett and Norman Barwin (Canada),
  • Mike Saunders (Rhodesia)
  • Jeff Robinson Australia
  • Chan Hong Kong
  • Harith Lamki
  • Billy Thompson
  • Charley Whitfield
  • Yes our very own Jim Dornan

Jack travelled widely, particularly in Africa and Asia, and was an excellent invited speaker and was a popular member of the GVS. He delivered the Simpson Oration in 1981. This speech on Irish Influences on British Obstetrics and Gynaecology remains in the RCOG Archives.

He also advised many departments in the world regarding curriculum and manpower including Libya, Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, Burma, Kuwait and Sudan to mention a few. His liaison with developing countries allowed many local doctors, working in his department, to spend part of their training abroad, gaining valuable experience.

He was committed to developing close ties between colleagues in both parts of Ireland and was President of the Ulster Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society and the first Northern Ireland Chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Ireland.

Jack served, with distinction on numerous local, national and international committees, and was Senior Vice President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists from 1977 to 1980. He was honored with a CBE in 1983 before retirement in 1985.

For the next 10 years he remained a regular attendee in the front row of the Ulster O&G. He was a keen amateur archaeologist and visited many of the Neolithic remains in Malta and Ireland and went on to get a Degree in Archaeology.

In preparing this tribute words to describe Jack that appeared included:

  • Ambitious
  • Dry humour ... very dry.
  • Focused
  • Perseverance
  • Sometimes intimidating but
  • Visionary
  • He loved classical and church music and was deeply religious
  • Ecumenical
  • Jack was an Irishman who believed in a united Ireland

But his own words were – he often said - "People are more important than papers”. And I think this sums up his philosophy.

Predeceased by his wife, Florence, he is survived by his four sons, 13 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. He will be remembered very fondly by family, friends and former colleagues at home and abroad. His legacy includes an outstanding and lasting contribution to his field of medicine.

May he rest in peace and Let his academic shadows and the Blair Bell Society carry his legacy forward for future generations.

Dr Paul P Fogarty FRCOG, Senior Vice President