Lives of the fellows

John Peel Sparks

b.28 February 1915 d.6 March 1992
MB BS Durham(1938) MD(1940) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1977)

It is a remarkable fact that there have been only four medical officers at Rugby School in the last 139 years. John Sparks was the last of the four distinguished doctors who served the school from 1845-1984. He was preceded by Clement Dukes [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.419], A I Simey [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.601] and R E Smith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.547].

John Sparks was born at Whitley Bay, the son of a medical practitioner. He was educated at Rugby School and Durham University, where he studied medicine. Not long after graduation he joined the Royal Navy and served with distinction in the Mediterranean. He was demobilized in 1946 and began his training with the intention of becoming a neurologist. He obtained registrar posts both at Hammersmith Hospital and at the National Hospital, Queen Square. One afternoon, while having tea at Queen Square, he noticed an advertisement for a medical officer at Rugby School; on a sudden impulse he applied for the post and got the job. He was appointed in 1950 and served the school until his retirement in 1984.

Work as a school doctor provided him with excellent opportunities to study the diseases of adolescence and injuries produced by sport. Over the years he produced a series of learned papers on torsion of the testis, the subject of his Arris and Gale lecture in 1971, and on the development of immunity to influenza. His research led him to the conclusion that in the age group which he studied it was better not to use the vaccine but rather to allow natural immunity to build up within the community. He discussed his findings in his Milroy lecture in 1979. Surrounded by sporting activities, he developed a keen interest in the safety or otherwise of team games and his paper on ‘Half a million hours of Rugby football - the injuries’ became the definitive account of the subject.

The boys at Rugby always thought of him as their friend. He noticed, as nobody else seems to have done, how tired they became -being stressed at school and on the playing field. He insisted that the school policy be changed and that a system of exeats should be introduced so that they could have short breaks at home to relax and rest. Generations of boys - and now girls - must be grateful to him for this. He abolished boxing at the school and discouraged beating and fagging. It is said that he never missed a good school ‘rugger match' and his tall, reassuring presence was always to be seen on the touch line whatever the weather. The governors of the school came to rely on his sound judgement, even when it meant accepting his trenchant criticisms, because they knew that he put the pupils first and what was in their interest was also in the interest of the school.

John Sparks was elected president of the Medical Officers of Schools Association 1968-1970 and a Fellow of the College in 1977. He was a kindly and thoughtful doctor who not only contributed much to the life of the school he served but also became an authority in his chosen field, advancing our knowledge of his subject. By the time he retired the structure of the health service had changed and career prospects were different. The school governors, knowing that they would have a very difficult task to replace him, opted for a new system and now the medical needs of the school are met by a general practice in the town.

He married Edith, daughter of James Boyle, in 1941 and they had two children. His hobbies included travel, opera, and walking in the hills.

Sir John Badenoch

[, 1992,305,708]

(Volume IX, page 494)

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