Advancing paediatric surgery through education and research

John Atwell Obituary

John Atwell died at the age of 87 years on 14th December 2016.

By David Drake

John Atwell died at the age of 87 years on 14th December 2016. His first consultant appointment was in 1963 as Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Child Health with Professor Andrew Wilkinson. This was linked with sessions at Queen Elizabeth, Hackney and later at Westminster Children’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. The challenge of being available for emergencies at three hospitals was rewarded with having a very large neonatal surgical practice at a time of unprecedented developments.

However, in 1969, John was appointed to establish the Wessex Centre for Paediatric Surgery in Southampton; his unique blend of administrative and clinical skills made John the ideal choice to develop the first regional centre in the south of England outside London. Two years later, he was joined by Neill Freeman and this was followed by the move to the University Teaching Hospital and recognition from the SAC to train specialist paediatric surgeons.

A network of regional clinics held in every paediatric unit in the region was to become the model for the rest of the country. The unit also championed day case surgery linked with community paediatric nurses visiting the children in their homes. The Day Surgical ward is named after him.

John’s research interest as a trainee in Leeds was in Crohn’s disease but this grew into a wide range of original contributions in neonatal surgery. Later the focus moved to urological topics. His publications were often co-authored by trainees and colleagues in anaesthesia, radiology and nursing, this latter recognising the vital role of good nursing care.

Many trainees benefitted from having John as a strong role model. His commitment to high standards of training included being an examiner for all four Royal Colleges and Chairman of the Court of Examiners at the English College. He was appointed to the Board of the newly introduced Intercollegiate Fellowship exam and edited a textbook written for trainees preparing for this hurdle.

John David Atwell was born in Venezuela and came to England at the age of five. The family home was on the Hamble River where John began his lifelong love of the sea and small boats. He was educated at Peter Symond’s School in Winchester during the second World War. This was followed by two years in the Royal Corps of Signals and Medical School in Leeds. John’s initial surgical training was with Professor Goligher in Leeds, later moving to the Hospital for Sick Children Great Ormond Street in London, where he met and married Sue Nightingale. Working for Innes Williams was the beginning of his interest in Paediatric Urology.

John was President of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons and was awarded the Denis Browne Gold Medal in 1997. His most cherished honour was to be invited to join the Society of Paediatric Urological Surgeons, a very select group of leading surgeons from around the world. He was also a civilian surgeon to the Royal Navy

John and Sue’s generous hospitality was legendary, only one example being the 1981 Annual conference in Southampton. John is survived by Sue, two sons, a daughter, eleven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.