Obituary: Professor Sir John Stallworthy
Tuesday 30 November 1993
JOHN STALLWORTHY was Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Oxford University from 1967 to 1973, an outstanding surgeon who was also President of the British Medical Association and twice President of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Stallworthy was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1906. He won a national scholarship to Auckland Grammar School and went on to gain a Junior Scholarship to Auckland University. He took first-year examinations in both law and medicine and decided to study the latter which he did at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, where he obtained a senior scholarship. This approach, in which options were assessed and then clear decisions made and adhered to, was typical of the way he approached everything in later life. John Stallworthy had little room for doubt if he felt the evidence was clear.
In 1939 he graduated with distinction and the Gold Medal in surgery, gynaecology and obstetrics. Having won both a one-year medical and two-year obstetric postgraduate travelling scholarship, he chose the latter and studied in Melbourne, London and Vienna between 1932 and 1938. He became a Member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1935 (and a Fellow in 1951) and a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1936. In 1938 he was invited to become First Assistant to Professor Chassar Moir in the new Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Oxford University at the Churchill Hospital.
Moir was concerned at the number of women who were dying in childbirth often before help could reach them. Following a concept which originated in Newcastle, he gave Stallworthy the task of setting up a mobile emergency service covering an area with about a 50-mile radius from Oxford in which the care team went to the patient's home. Whether this allowed Stallworthy to indulge legally in one of his lifelong passions of driving fast cars is not recorded. This obstetric 'flying squad' soon had to double then treble its size and was an important factor in making the maternal mortality rate in the Oxford region the lowest in Britain.
In 1939 Stallworthy was invited by Sir Farquhar Buzzard, the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, to take charge of a new 'Area Department' being planned in the Radcliffe Infirmary in order to bring general practitioner obstetricians into a closer working relationship with midwives and hospital consultants. In this he was highly successful and, in addition, he soon established his national and international reputation for the management of female cancers, particularly cancer of the cervix.
Moir had established the reputation of the Nuffield Department for clinical practice, teaching and research and, when he retired in 1967, Stallworthy accepted the invitation to succeed him thereby amalgamating the two departments, ultimately in the new trendsetting John Radcliffe Maternity Hospital in Headington. The department flourished under his leadership and his towering personality soon made it a focus for visitors from around the world. He was a fine, if dogmatic clinician, and an outstanding obstetric and gynaecological surgeon. Some prospered mightily under his tutelage; others, equally talented, did not. All feared him and many, but not all, idolised him.
He was President of the Institute of Religion and Medicine in 1956-58 and became Vice-President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1969. Knighted for his services to medicine in 1972, he was President of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1973 to 1975 and 1980 to 1981, and of the British Medical Association in 1975. He was awarded the BMA Gold Medal in 1981 and chaired their Working Party on the Medical Effects of Nuclear War from 1981 to 1983. Leeds University and the University of Otago both conferred the honorary degree of D Sc on him in 1975. For several years he was chairman of the governing body of Headington Girls School.
He married Margaret Howie in 1934. They had one son, Jon, the biographer, literary critic and Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, and twin daughters.
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