Lives of the fellows

David John Parker

b.1 February 1938 d.23 March 1998
CBE(1997) MB ChB St And(1962) MRCP(1966) FRCS(1967) FRCS Edin(1967) FRCP(1983)

John Parker was a consultant cardiac surgeon at St George’s Hospital, London. His giant intellectual capacity, organizational ability and energy were evident from the beginning. What made him unique was the combination of these qualities of natural leadership with kindness, fairness, intellectual honesty and thoughtfulness for others.

He was born in Harrow, but spent ten years of his youth in Zimbabwe, where he first demonstrated his ability to combine academic excellence with leadership, becoming school captain, as well as leading the rugby team and winning a scholarship to study medicine at the University of St Andrews. Whilst at university he won prizes in almost every scientific subject, while still finding time to become president of the Scottish Union of Students.

Although he was interested in every aspect of medicine, John was naturally inclined to surgery. After an academic appointment at St Andrews, general surgical appointments in Dundee and six months cardiology at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow, he settled on cardiothoracic surgery. From 1968 to 1972 he was successively registrar and later senior registrar at the Brompton Hospital, the National Heart and London Chest Hospitals. This included a stimulating year at the University of Alabama with John Kirklin, generally regarded as the world’s foremost cardiac surgeon at that time. The two Johns developed great mutual respect, while sharing their main interest researching and developing safe intracardiac surgery and in particular at that time, valve replacement.

When John Parker returned to the National Heart Hospital as senior lecturer he immediately demonstrated his excellent pre-operative assessment and post-operative care: his surgical results equalled those of his more experienced colleagues. He had a broad view of medicine and believed in the integration of cardiologists with cardiac surgeons, which included undertaking ward rounds with his cardiologist colleague. In 1975 a surgical vacancy was advertised at St George’s, soon to move from Hyde Park Corner to Tooting, and become the only teaching hospital in the south west region. Those aware of John’s ability persuaded him to apply to St George’s, where he was appointed consultant cardiothoracic surgeon. With its expansion after the move to Tooting, St George’s became one of the leading centres for cardiac surgery in Europe.

One of the main reasons for the success of St George’s was the remarkable symbiosis that he and Aubrey Leatham established between medicine and cardiac surgery. A unique feature of John Parker’s prowess was his interest in cardiac medicine as well as surgery. This started with his obtaining the MRCP in 1966 (before his FRCS). He was elected FRCP in 1983. It was no surprise when he was elected president of the British Cardiac Society in 1993, the first surgeon to head this medical group. His performance for the physicians was outstanding, including suggesting, planning and acquiring the Society’s home in Fitzroy Square. He was appointed president of the Society of Cardiothoracic Surgeons in Great Britain and Ireland in 1998.

John Parker’s early interest in basic research (for example in changes in the lungs during coronary bypass surgery) was superseded by his awareness of the practical importance of assessing the values of various medical and surgical procedures, and of long-term planning. Not only was he in the chair, or a valued member, of every important long-term planning committee at St George’s Hospital, but at a national level he was concerned with the randomized intervention treatment of angina (RITA) trials, comparing angioplasty with surgical and medical treatment of coronary disease, the Read Centre on coding and terms for cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery, the NHS Casemix Office for assessing health resources and group developments for cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery, and the Clinical Standards Advisory Group, producing a report on access to and availability of coronary artery bypass grafting and coronary angioplasty.

He was much sought-after for independent reviews such as the introduction of the external market and its effect on the organization and management of cardiology at Guy’s Hospital, the report on the utilization of resources for cardiac surgery at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, and the review of adult cardiac and cardiothoracic services in the north west region for the NHS Executive North West. He was chairman of the working group on cardiothoracic surgery for the European Society of Cardiology and president of the cardiothoracic section of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1993 to 1995.

His awards were many and included his appointment as Hunterian professor of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1972 and the Clement Price Thomas award for recognition of outstanding contributions to cardiac surgery in 1992. Finally, his CBE in 1997 was enthusiastically welcomed by his colleagues as a just recognition of a lifetime of prodigious and outstandingly successful service to medicine.

John was a shy and modest man and never sought recognition for his professional efforts. He recognized the value of the contribution of every member of his team and sought to involve each of them. He was almost continuously available and always invaluable for surgical emergencies. It is amazing that he found time to indulge his passion for sailing. This was a challenging leisure activity, planned and organized to visit interesting places with good restaurants, as well as enjoying the variety of sailing on the way - always safely because of careful forethought. On no occasion did he have to make use of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, of which he was a valued member of their medical and survival committee.

His family was very important to him and this was most evident in his last year of life. His stoical and realistic acceptance of a bad prognosis and his capacity to undertake advisory and organizational work was quite incredible and, in the writer’s opinion, nobody could have given a better example. The life and work of John Parker has inspired his colleagues and will always be remembered. He and his wife Niki had three children. He died of a brain tumour.

Aubrey Leatham
Niki Parker

[The Guardian 31 Mar 1998; The Times 21 Apr 1998; The Daily Telegraph 8 May 1998; Brit.med.J., 1998,316,1987]

(Volume XI, page 438)

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