Lives of the fellows

John Michael Parkin

b.1 March 1935 d.11 February 1990
MB BS Durh(1957) MRCP(1959) MD Newc(1969) FRCP(1974)

John Michael Parkin was born in Gateshead and educated at Musgrave and Newcastle preparatory schools before going on to Durham School as a King’s Scholar. Durham remained very important to him in future years. His father, Stanley Parkin, a solicitor, died when Michael was 16 years old - the eldest of his four sons. His mother, Gladys Mary née Chapman, returned to her former career as a teacher and together they managed to educate the three younger boys - all of whom succeeded in professional careers as barrister, doctor and clergyman.

In 1952 Michael went up to university to study medicine at the King’s College of the University of Durham, in Newcastle upon Tyne. In choosing medicine as a career he was almost certainly influenced by his two uncles, Alfred Parkin [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.318], a physician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, and George Parkin - a district medical officer who died at the age of 31 years in a typhoid epidemic. Michael was one of the youngest in his year and his mentors feared that if he were to proceed to National Service, as one of the last conscripts, he would not only waste time but perhaps also fall behind those in the years immediately below him. But, as with most situations in his life, he turned his Army career to his advantage and returned with the rank of captain, having travelled through the Far East and gained first-hand experience of tropical medicine.

On his return from military service he resumed his paediatric training, having already obtained his membership of the College. He joined the department m Newcastle which had been established by Sir John Spence, whose philosophy lived on under the direction of Donald Court and Fred Miller, both Fellows of the College. Later, a Lucock fellowship enabled Michael to spend time working with Gerald Neligan [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.425] at the Princess Mary Maternity Hospital and this resulted in his being awarded an MD, with distinction. The simple method which he devised there for assessing the gestational age of newborn babies had import throughout the world and his thesis is a model to which many subsequent research fellows in the department were directed.

In 1965 he was appointed as first assistant in the department of child health in Newcastle and, apart from a fifteen-months’ secondment to Kampala, he remained as lecturer, senior lecturer, and reader. In 1988 he was appointed to a personal chair in clinical paediatrics. He was honorary consultant paediatrician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary from 1971. His clinical practice in Newcastle developed rapidly and he was constantly busy with referrals, not only from local and regional family doctors but also from other consultant colleagues. He developed a special interest and expertise in the management of growth, nutritional and endocrinological problems, and ran a huge diabetic clinic.

Michael was a wise man - and this was recognized by his peers at a remarkably early stage in his career. Not only was his opinion sought on ethical matters but he was also a leading member of the working group established by the Bishop of Durham, whose remit was to consider ethical and moral issues. Much of Michael’s writing and teaching in his latter years was devoted to these important matters.

In the midst of an enormously busy clinical practice, he turned his mind to Africa. It was in 1969 that he went to the MRC unit at Makerere University, Kampala, as a visiting fellow and spent, perhaps, the most enjoyable and satisfying fifteen months of his life. It was certainly greatly to influence his future thoughts and direction. He retained his links with the unit when it moved to the Gambia and continued to be a visiting fellow. Although there was certainly a missionary spirit within him, he recognized that his talents could best serve Africa and its children from a base in England. Appropriate postgraduate courses for doctors from overseas led to a stream of young men and women to study with him in Newcastle and he was heavily involved in the setting up and running of the MPCH courses in Khartoum. He was also a frequent examiner in universities in Africa and Malaysia.

Michael Parkin was more than a gifted teacher, more than an excellent and dedicated physician and accomplished scientist. The patriarchal role which he assumed at an early age is one which he played not only for his own extended family but also for an enormous circle of friends from all corners of the globe. He continued to educate his two African houseboys from his Kampala days and gave as much as he could to various charities, largely for the benefit of children in Africa. His convictions were based on an unswerving Christian faith; he came from a long line of lay preachers, stretching back directly to John Wesley’s visit to Gateshead. But in religion, as in all other aspects of his life, he was a teacher rather than a preacher.

He was a man of order, a traditionalist - and this was evident in his clinical practice where he was one of the few paediatricians who still wore a white coat. He had a remarkable ability to draw the best out of everyone with whom he came into contact. He had many virtues but perhaps it was his utter selflessness which was his most striking quality - and if this can be a weakness, it was his only one. If anyone needed something -whether it be material advice, sympathy or love - he would give it with no thought of himself. He believed that every waking hour should be spent helping others - many when most people were asleep. And like all great men he had his ‘quirks’: the sight of him on his bicycle with fluorescent jacket flapping in the breeze was legendary in Newcastle, and in the late 1960s he appeared in a television interview advocating that doctors should take a pay cut.

It was ironic that on the day when the whole of black Africa was rejoicing in the release of Nelson Mandela from detention, Michael Parkin - a man who had devoted a large part of his life to the medical needs of children in that continent - should tragically die at the relatively young age of 54. Yet Africa was only part of a very full professional and personal life: a leading expert on growth and nutrition in children and, above all, a man whose wise counsel was sought by many.

A W Craft
A Aynsley-Green

[The Lancet, 1990,335,466;The Times, 7 Feb 1990;The Independent, 8 Mar 1990;The Guardian, 20 Feb 1990; The Daily Telegraph, 22 Feb 1990]

(Volume IX, page 405)

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