Lives of the fellows

John Rowell Simpson

b.30 October 1914 d.21 December 1999
MB BS Lond(1938) MRCS LRCP(1938) MRCP(1947) FRCP(1967)

John Simpson was a consultant dermatologist at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Torbay Hospital and the North Devon Infirmary. He was born in Dhanbad in India, the eldest of three children of Robert Rowell Simpson and his wife, Audrey. Robert was a Northumbrian, a mining engineer who eventually became chief inspector of mines in India and Burma. Robert undertook many trips into the jungle accompanied by Indian bearers and, after the day's work, washed in his tin bath, changed into a dinner jacket and ate a solitary meal.

At the age of five John was brought to England but his parents had to return to India, a hard lesson in self-reliance which may have led to John's lifelong insistence on fair play. John went to preparatory school at Elstree in Hertfordshire and then to Harrow where he was a member of the Rugby XV and the Cricket XI. He played against Eton at Lords where as the last batsman he scored nought not out in both innings. Nevertheless he took two wickets, in each case the Eton captain who had made more than a century.

John studied medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital where he qualified MRCS LRCP in 1938 and in the same year obtained the London University degree of MB BS. On 12 August 1939 he married Mary Isobel Fabian, daughter of the solicitor Herbert Charles Fabian. Thereafter 'the glorious twelfth' was an expression John liked to use. John and Mary had known each other from the age of 13 as they were immediate neighbours. They had two daughters, Janet and Caroline, and a son, Hugh, who trained in medicine at Bart's and became a consultant physician. John had never tried to persuade him to take up medicine.

John was house physician in the skin and VD department and a casualty house physician at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1939. He then became senior resident medical officer at the Royal Bucks Hospital and subsequently a senior house surgeon at Devonport hospital.

From 1940 to 1946 he was in the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve. He worked at the RAF Hospital St Athan as medical officer in charge of the skin department and the infectious diseases block. He was assistant in the VD department (1940 to 1943) and at PMRAF Hospital, Halton, where he undertook similar duties. From 1944 to 1946 he was assistant to the RAF civilian consultant in dermatology at CME London.

In 1946 John became registrar in the skin department at St Thomas's Hospital, where he benefited greatly from the teaching and vision of the future of dermatology given by Geoffrey Dowling [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.163]. This was an inspiring year and John formed lasting friendships with other pupils of Dowling, but John had firmly decided to leave London.

In 1947 he was appointed consultant dermatologist at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Torbay Hospital and the North Devon Infirmary where he continued until his retirement in 1979 (leaving Torbay a little earlier). He had been single-handed throughout his career in Devon and responsible for an area later shared by several consultants.

John's papers, principally in dermatological journals, included work on Kaposi's varicelliform eruption, the natural history of cavernous haemangioma, sarcoidosis, congenital bulbous icthyosiform erythroderma and the treatment of rodent ulcers by curettage and cauterization.

Sport was an essential part of John's life and, in particular, athletics, boxing, rugby and cricket. A collapsed lung sustained during a rugby game forced him reluctantly to accept a slower pace. However, he returned to play cricket for many years as a member of the Devon B team and he was actively involved in his children's sporting ventures. He gave long-term support to the Salvation Army's initiatives to provide sports facilities for young persons. Aged 40 he began to learn the skills of fly-fishing and for the next 25 years explored the delights offered by the rivers Exe, Taw, Teign and Otter, with occasional expeditions to Ireland, Scotland and Norway. John's sight began to fail but not his zest for stretching himself. In his 80s he would still walk up to ten miles a day, accompanied in the last few years by his guide dog, Barney.

John's marriage was happy and sure, creating a framework much valued by family and friends. His choices in life proved to be wise and were made on the basis of a humble attitude to his work and his personal gifts. His true grit was perhaps best revealed in the final years of his life. Widowed, blind and far from Devon, John's determination to engage with life never changed. He continued to extend his knowledge through audiotapes, became something of a celebrity on his long walks and, in particular, won the love and respect of his teenage grandchildren.

C Gardner-Thorpe

(Volume XI, page 523)

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