Obituary: John Gibbons

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FOR 54 years John Gibbons served the British army as a soldier or military surgeon. As a surgeon he was a superb diagnostician and clinician, courageous and nerveless with the knife. He was regarded as a leading authority on blast, crush and missile injuries to the chest.

Probably his finest work was carried out in Belfast, at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where from 1977 he was the senior consultant in the thoracic department, and at the Military Wing of the Musgrave Park Hospital, where he dealt with many of the severest casualties of the Troubles. In recognition of his work in chest trauma he was appointed Hunterian Professor by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1984.

It was, however, not just his consummate skill as a surgeon which endeared him to his patients but his warmth, eccentricity and intuition. An avuncular man with enormous energy and vitality, he delighted in convivial company. A surgeon colleague recalls him coming into the bar after a long day of operations. As he was drinking his first pint he was listening to details of a young man who had been involved in a car crash. His injuries were not considered serious but he was being kept in overnight for observation.

Sensing all was not well, Gibbons rushed to the hospital to find the young man sitting up happily talking to his parents. After a quick examination the youth was immediately taken to theatre, where Gibbons operated and sealed a potentially fatal small leak from his pulmonary artery. After the operation Gibbons returned to the bar to a fresh pint.

On another occasion he showed his versatility not only as a thoracic but general surgeon. After resecting a tumour of the chest he noted a tumour on the bowel which he duly cut away and repaired. Having put the man's internal organs to rights he completed the afternoon's work by taking out two of his decayed teeth.

He was deeply respected by the people of Northern Ireland, from both sides of the religious divide. Once, while he was on night call, his radio was stolen. Wearing his Parachute Regiment tie he calmly marched into a well-known Republican club and asked for his radio back. The following morning the culprit was delivered to his hospital carrying Gibbons's radio and in need of his surgical skills.

John Gibbons was born in Birmingham and educated at Moseley Grammar School and Pates Grammar School, Cheltenham. He followed his father - who had been gassed in the Great War - into the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1944. Two years later he was commissioned in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and while attached to the Guards Parachute Battalion saw the results of terrorism in Palestine.

On his return to England he joined the Territorial Army with the Royal Tank Corps and began his medical studies at Leeds University, where he met his future wife. After graduating he worked as a busy Surgical Registrar in Leeds while at the same time helping his brothers-in-law run the family general practice as well as continuing his military activities with the Territorial Army.

He went on to specialise in cardio-thoracic surgery in London at the National Heart, London Chest and Brompton Hospitals. He was first surgical assistant at the National Heart Hospital in the team that performed the first British heart transplant in 1967. He was appointed consultant in surgery in 1971 in Croydon and St Helier (in Carshalton) Hospitals and senior lecturer and honorary cardio-thoracic surgeon at King's College Hospital until his appointment as consultant in cardio-thoracic surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital and Royal Children's Hospital in Belfast in 1977.

Throughout this period his military career continued in the Territorial Army. In 1961 he was transferred to the Parachute Regiment and at one point, uniquely for a doctor, commanded his company, until at the insistence of a non- airborne general he was transferred to the RAMC.

His attachment to the Parachute Regiment was a profound one and he was never more at home than when in their company. He travelled through the world with them and on occasion parachuted with his son Max, also a surgeon. He was also President of the Northern Ireland Parachute Regiment Association.

During the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s he brought his skills in gunshot and shrapnel wounds to the operating table out there. He was later decorated by the Iraqis.

Gibbons died after heart surgery and was buried in Aldershot, the home of the Parachute Regiment.

Max Arthur

John Robert Pelham Gibbons, surgeon and soldier: born Birmingham 26 November 1926; MBE 1969; Hunterian Professor, Royal College of Surgeons 1984; married 1952 Marie-Jeanne Brookes (four sons, two daughters); died London 23 April 1999.