Obituary: Prof John Lennard-Jones - 'not only a fine personal doctor but also a great leader'
PUBLISHED: 19:16 29 April 2019
Stopped dreaming of farming and instead went into medicine, and co-founded charity Crohn's and Colitis UK
In this digital age of cheap airlines, relative affluence and information at our fingertips, we can forget how pioneering and novel foreign travel would once have seemed – even as recently as the 1960s. For John Lennard-Jones, criss-crossing America by Greyhound bus in 1963, it must have been a major adventure.
He travelled to cities such as Chicago, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Boston. It was no holiday. Empowered by a medical fellowship via London's University College Hospital (UCH), John was there to visit US gastroenterology centres and talk to leading experts about this branch of medicine.
It will have been a step in an ongoing journey that over the years allowed him and other specialists to make life better – bit by bit – for thousands of patients.
In 1979, John co-founded Crohn's and Colitis UK. The organisation says: “Without his skill, interventions and dedication, there would not be the same advancement in the understanding and treatments for Crohn's Disease and ulcerative colitis, nor would the charity have been founded 40 years ago and achieved so much in research, information and support for everyone affected by the conditions.”
And to think he might have become a farmer. What a loss that would have been.
A good match
Prof John Lennard-Jones, an adopted man of Suffolk, died at the age of 92 – a fortnight after wife Verna's funeral. They'd met at University College Hospital and married in 1955.
John was born in Bristol in January, 1927. He was about five years old when the family moved to Cambridge – his father was professor of theoretical chemistry at the university.
In 1935 John joined King's College Choir School (as a non-chorister) and in 1941 moved on to Gresham's to study maths, physics and chemistry.
It wasn't to the school's Norfolk site that he went, though. “It was wartime and they were evacuated to Cornwall,” explains son Tim.
At 17, John went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to study for a BA in natural sciences. Is it true he was undecided about a medical career?
“Yes,” confirms Tim. “He always loved natural history. He kept animals as a child. In Cambridge they backed onto farmland, and they used to wander around the farms.”
In 1946 John was employed in Birmingham by the Medical Research Council as an assistant research worker at its industrial medicine and burns unit. He completed his first project – about the value of penicillin in finger-pulp infections – and a career in medicine won.
The late 1940s and first half of the 1950s brought many key moments: A first medical degree at Cambridge; undergraduate clinical training at University College Hospital, London; a second medical degree; appointed house physician, house surgeon, senior house officer.
It was a big year, 1955. John gave his first presentation at the British Society of Gastroenterology meeting, in Oxford. And he married Verna Down. “I don't know if she was actually a midwife, but she was nursing on a midwifery ward (at UCH),” says Tim.
Between 1956 and 1964 they had sons David, Peter, Andrew (who followed his father into the profession) and Timothy.
“In some ways they were quite different,” says Tim. “Mum I think would have been attracted to the dashing young doctor type who was going places.
“He was very quiet and I think found people a little bit awkward, initially. You wouldn't guess it to meet him, but he was quite introverted, really, and I think my mum was quite extrovert, and was the outgoing social type. So they made quite a good combination, actually, and I think they probably liked that about each other.”
There's a nice story about John applying for the post of medical registrar at Central Middlesex Hospital but not being able to go to the interview because it clashed with the Royal College of Physicians' final oral exam. However, the man in charge refused to rule on the job until John was seen. He had a special interview a few days later and landed the post.
Had his reputation gone before him? “He'd apparently cleaned up with all the prizes as an undergraduate when he was studying medicine, so I think he did have a bit of a reputation when he went for those interviews,” says Tim.
At the Central Middlesex, his father started to develop an interest in the control of gastric acid secretion and the way duodenal ulcers developed.
In 1958 John returned to University College Hospital, as medical registrar. He also began to help at St Mark's in London – a small, specialised, gastroenterology hospital building an international reputation. Gastroenterology is the branch of medicine dealing with the digestive system.
Cared passionately about NHS
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The 1960s and '70s were full of achievement. In 1961 John became senior medical registrar to the Department of Gastroenterology at Central Middlesex. A couple of years later he became a member of the Medical Research Council's Gastroenterology Research Unit there, and had a growing commitment to the care of inpatients at St Mark's.
In 1965 he was appointed consultant physician to UCH, St Mark's, and the MRC at Central Middlesex.
Another lovely tale: John chose not to develop a substantial private practice – apparently to the chagrin of Prof Max Rosenheim, who at about that time became president of the Royal College of Physicians and a knight commander.
Was that a sign of John's philosophical leanings? “He had a very strong Christian basis to his character and what he did,” says Tim. “And, yes, he cared passionately about the NHS and wasn't interested in making loads of money and doing private practice on the side. He wanted to make sure it was accessible to everybody and do the best for people.”
When he became honorary secretary of the British Society of Gastroenterology, meetings were held at home, around the dining table.
John gave the 1977 Humphrey Davy Rolleston Lecture, on “Colitis: Cure or Control”, at the Royal College of Physicians; and from 1978 to 1991 chaired the medical advisory committee of the National Association for Colitis and Crohn's Disease.
Crohn's causes inflammation of the digestive system or gut. Ulcerative colitis triggers inflammation and ulceration of the lining of the rectum and colon.
In 1983 John was made president of the British Society of Gastroenterology, and in 1986 became a member of the Council of the Royal College of Physicians.
The following year, he resigned from London Hospital Medical College to work full-time at St Mark's.
In 1991 he joined the executive committee of the British Digestive Foundation, and chaired the steering committee of the British Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. (That's all about people with eating or digestion problems and needing artificial food – sometimes via a drip.)
Back to East Anglia
John retired from clinical medicine in the early 1990s, so didn't see more patients, but he was still involved in research projects, and nutrition. “He did a lot on medical ethics as well,” says Tim.
By the middle of the decade his parents were looking to move out of London. John had grown up in Cambridge, two of his sons were in East Anglia, and there was a holiday home in north Norfolk. This region fitted the bill.
John and Verna bought land in Cumberland Street, Woodbridge, when a walled garden was sold off. They built a house and lived there until a few years ago, when they moved to a more-manageable bungalow nearby.
John was a long-time member of St John's. The church had lost its spire in 1975 (it wasn't safe) and the retired doctor was involved heavily in a project to add a new one, thanks to a legacy left to the church. The dream was realised in 2002.
Other hobbies? “He tried to play golf – very badly! He loved it but he struggled over it. He loved gardening and was never happier than when he was digging a hole and doing landscaping or something like that.
“He liked birdwatching, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and walking. He liked natural history; so he'd go off on field courses to do things like learning the different types of grass in a field.
“He enjoyed Suffolk life. I think they were very happy here; they felt they'd made the right decision.”
Compassion and humility
Verna died in February: 92 as well. John attended the funeral. In essence, the last thing he did; “and then he just kind of gave up after that, and stopped eating and drinking,” says Tim.
The couple had nine grandchildren, one of whom is training for the medical profession. Crohn's and Colitis UK called John “one of the very few 'pure' gastroenterologists”.
Of that 1963 Greyhound bus episode, Tim says: “I don't know much about the medical side of it, but mum used to talk about what a significant trip it was, for the time. I think it was about going around and trying to harvest what the current thinking was in places working in this (medical) area.
“His international reach seems amazing. The amount of letters we've had – from people in Australia, New Zealand, America – saying they were influenced by his work… You just think 'Wow'.
“He seemed to nurture these relationships with… 'collaborators', I think he'd see it: all these people in different places striving to improve the lot of the patients.”
Tim cites a letter from a man running a gastroenterology unit in Australia and calling himself a disciple of John. He'd never met anybody who just listened to people, had patients' interests so much at heart, and was so unassuming, diligent and effective.
The charity he co-founded says: “John's compassion and sense of humility within the spectrum of the whole natural world, and his ability to listen and resolve conflicting evidence, made John not only a fine personal doctor but also a great leader and a productive, imaginative researcher.”