Lives of the fellows

John Penman

b.10 February 1913 d.5 January 1994
MB BS Lond(1944) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1969)

John Penman was born at Sanderstead, Surrey, the son of William Penman, an actuary, and his wife, Edith (née Gurley). John must have been one of the last holders of a classics degree as well as a medical one, having gone up to University College, Oxford, as a scholar from Tonbridge School. He held fast always to his original love and indeed allowed it to dictate many of his attitudes, and to colour his speech. He obtained a degree in greats, modest enough to suggest not a failing interest or ineptitude but a fascination with the delights of Oxford life, the writing of poetry and argument among his fellows. Classics and medicine were soon bound together, the one influencing the other to their mutual benefit. John chose the London Hospital as the best place to begin his clinical training, for at that time it carried a great reputation. It was there that he came under the influence of Russell Brain, later Lord Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60], and George Riddoch [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.600] who stimulated his interest in neurology. This was not by chance, for he needed the precision of neurology to satisfy him. In a friendship of some fifty years, his decision to alter course and study medicine was never discussed, nor were his abiding interests in literature, poetry and etymology.

In 1938 John married Joan, daughter of Alfred Johnson, an optician, and they had a son and two daughters. The marriage was dissolved in 1974 and he later married Elisabeth Quin.

All his actions were dictated by the classical tradition and although at times these were rigid and demanding enough to cause his friends some hesitancy in accepting them, they were never disruptive. His interest in language grew; he wrote and published two volumes of poetry as well as a highly regarded translation of Horace. He was a perfectionist, never being able to settle for half measures as was shown by his habit of sounding his horn, when driving, at every turn in the road - demanded by the dogma of the Institute of Advanced Mororists of which he was a member. His professional writings were not quite so precise as his other publications but they were as near perfect as made no difference. His particular interest lay in using his natural precision-making skills to make injections into the trigeminal sensory root for relief from the agonies of tic douloureux. He brought radiological control of needle precision to aid the operation, becoming this country’s finest practitioner.

In 1948 he began a number of peripatetic senior jobs. I was on the house at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases when he was registrar in the out-patients department. Later he held consultant appointments at Hertford County Hospital, St Andrew’s Hospital, Bow, and the Herts and Essex Hospital at Bishop’s Stortford. He was also neurological assistant at St George’s Hospital, where he further developed his technique of injection of the fifth cranial nerve, especially on patients referred to him by Wyllie McKissock, to whom he was always happy to admit a debt. In 1954 he was appointed neurologist to the Royal Marsden Hospital.

He had a humorous side, though rare in its showing, and was at all times kind, with a gentle, sweet smile that seemed to deny his rigidity. He saw no war service, a matter never discussed but which perhaps indicated a distaste for being coerced. His later years were shrouded by more than one chronic disease. Towards the end this caused him growing indignity, which he bore without complaint.

C H Edwards

(Volume X, page 381)

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