Professor Alan Johnson

Gastrointestinal surgeon
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The Independent Online

Alan Godfrey Johnson, surgeon and ethicist: born Epsom Downs, Surrey 19 January 1938; Research Fellow, Senior Lecturer and Reader in Surgery, Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1969-79; Professor of Surgery, Sheffield University 1979-2003 (Emeritus); married 1962 Esther Vellacott (two sons, one daughter); died Wotton, Surrey 15 October 2006.

Alan Johnson was a gastrointestinal surgeon who pioneered new treatments for conditions of the gullet, stomach and biliary tract. These included sclerotherapy and drug therapy, as adjuncts to surgery for gullet varices (clumps of enlarged blood vessels) and selective cutting of the vagus nerve as a treatment for peptic ulcer.

In 1987 he performed the first randomised controlled trial of keyhole versus small-incision gall-bladder surgery - he found they were equally good, and both were superior to conventional big-incision surgery. The trial was heralded by The Lancet as a new gold standard for surgical trials. Later, at the request of the Department of Health, in 1992 he performed the key trial that assessed the now-standard ultrasound treatment, called lithotripsy, for gallstones.

Johnson championed the wider introduction of surgery for obesity, and was the first president of the British Obesity Surgery Society. His research on gastric motility included discovering the role of the hormone-like substance cholecystokinin, the role of the stomach "pacemaker", and the complexities of biliary reflux. He trialled photodynamic therapy for Barrett's oesophagus, a condition where the gullet is scarred and constricted.

He studied the function of the pylorus - the muscular ring where the stomach meets the duodenum - in health and disease. He elucidated the mechanisms by which symptoms are produced, and made the first recordings of human gastroduodenal contractions.

Johnson pioneered the clinical teaching of medical ethics. In 1998 he chaired the working party that produced the first detailed guidance on ethics for surgeons. He was a dedicated Christian and his ethics books were written from a strong religious standpoint that some medical ethicists considered extreme.

The books he wrote included Aims and Motives in Clinical Medicine (1975), Techniques of Vagotomy (1979), Pathways in Medical Ethics (1990), Liver Disease and Gallstones: the facts (1992) and Surgical Palliative Care (2006). His last book, Making Sense of Medical Ethics (jointly with his son Paul Johnson, a paediatric surgeon) is published this month.

Alan Johnson wrote several major reports for the Department of Health, published dozens of research papers and contributed chapters on gastrointestinal surgery to 36 textbooks. He was on the editorial board of Gut and of the British Journal of Surgery and found time to give invited lectures all over the world.

He was a past president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, of the National Association of Theatre Nurses, and of several specialist associations. He was an invited member of the Royal College of Surgeons' council and headed their specialist advisory committee in general surgery at the time when new training regulations were introduced. He chaired committees for the Medical Research Council and government bodies - from 1998 to 2002 he was Chairman of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee to the Secretary of State for Health.

Alan Johnson's father, Douglas Johnson, was a theologian who studied medicine and intended becoming a medical missionary, but instead founded and became the General Secretary of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, a Christian student organisation. Alan shared his father's commitment to Christianity and it governed every aspect of his life. A burgess of Sheffield churches, he was President - and former Chairman - of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

He was educated at Epsom College, and got his medical training at Trinity College, Cambridge, and University College Hospital London, qualifying in 1962. He did his pre-registration house jobs at UCH, and his senior house officer jobs at West Middlesex and Charing Cross hospitals. He stayed at Charing Cross for 12 years, rising to Reader in Surgery. He trained under some of the giants of gastrointestinal surgery, including Tony Harding Rains and Norman Tanner. He then moved to Sheffield as Professor of Surgery, where he remained for the rest of his career, retiring in 2003.

Johnson was a man of energy, integrity, gentleness, kindness and humility. He played hockey and cricket for his school, university and hospital, and enjoyed country walks, wood- carving, painting, playing the piano and organ, and ornithology.

He died of a heart attack in the churchyard of St John's, Wotton, near Dorking, where he was about to preach a sermon for St Luke's Day on compassion in medicine; he had just finished giving the same sermon at its sister church, Holmbury St Mary.

Caroline Richmond