Lives of the fellows

John Howie Flint (Sir) Brotherston

b.9 March 1915 d.12 May 1985
Kt( 1972) MA Edin(1935) MB ChB(1940) DPH(1947) MD(1950) Dr PH Johns Hopkins(1952) FRCPE(1957) FRCPSG(1964) FFCM(1972) FRCP(1978) Hon LL Aberd(1971) Hon MD Bristol( 1981)

John Brotherston was a leading figure in health promotion and health services in the UK and abroad for more than 30 years. He was born into an Edinburgh legal family and had a pioneering medical mother, Margaret Brotherston MBE. Throughout his life he managed to combine a strong Scottishness, even a minor Scottish Nationalist orientation, with an international outlook reflected in an abundance of overseas friends and travel. His first degree at Edinburgh University was in the arts faculty, where he became president of the Students’ Representative Council. His undergraduate medical career, also at Edinburgh, was not particularly distinguished academically, no doubt because of his polymathic interests in undergraduate affairs.

John was remarkably reticent about his war service in the RAMC, 1941-46; part of his abhorrence of hierarchical organizations. He was wounded in Sicily and stubbornly refused amputation of his leg. Within a few years after demobilization John had established lifelong relationships with the London School of Hygiene and Johns Hopkins University, USA. He regarded his own prime mentor as James Mackintosh, from whom he acquired an interest in the effects of housing on health.

The chair of public health at Edinburgh University was a predictable goal, and within a decade he had transformed the department by his own energies and by those of others whom he recruited, including a few from London. John tended to lean on individuals he knew and transmute them, rather than reform them. During this period he was elected dean of the faculty of medicine and embarked on a major revision of the undergraduate curriculum. He began to organize weekend retreats where participants were expected to work from dawn to dusk and beyond, and then carry on working in a social setting. These tactics reached their apotheosis after 1964 when he became chief medical officer, Scottish Home and Health Department, and threw his energies into no less a task than the reorganization and integration of Scotland’s health services. Within a few years there was no doctor in Scotland worth his salt who could say that he had not had the opportunity to express his views to the chief medical officer.

John worked closely with the World Health Organization, and at a time when most schools of public health were still plodding along their well worn paths - and the Hunter report and wider vision of the Faculty of Community Medicine had yet to make their impact - he established a diploma in medical services administration at Edinburgh University; the first international course of its kind, to which WHO sent doctors with scholarships from many countries. He had a fine perception of what was going to be useful for future development; as assessor and, later, member of the Medical Research Council he made valuable contributions to its discussions. He gave 21 years of continuous service to the General Medical Council, and was an outstanding chairman of the education committee from 1970-75.

After so energetic a career some men might have welcomed retirement, but in 1977 John Brotherston returned to the university chair that he left in 1964, as emeritus professor. From 1978-81 he was president of the UK Faculty of Community Medicine, a body he had worked so hard to establish in earlier years. He was also chairman of ASH (Scotland).

Politically John was eclectic, but as he aged he became progressively more interested in Scotland, culminating in his presidency of the unsuccessful campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In later years John developed his interest in sailing, where he favoured the west coast of Scotland. Of longer duration was his indifferent golf, and his skilled photography, where he was early adept with a miniature camera. Although not a drinking man his interest in wine making, and even the drinking of it, developed in his later years.

John published sparingly, but to great effect. At first concerned with housing and health, the scope of his publications widened to include health and health services. Perhaps his finest mark was ‘Inequality: is it inevitable?’, Galton Lecture 1975. When he recognized he had a terminal illness John redoubled the pace of his editorial activity on the history of the Scottish health service from 1900 to the present time, to complement his MD thesis of 1950 on Observations on the early public health movement in Scotland, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, memoir 8, 1952.

John was survived by his wife, the former Irene Low (Bunty), also a doctor, whom he married in 1939. They had two sons and two daughters, one of whom followed in his footsteps in his chosen medical specialty. He was a devoted grandfather to nine grandchildren.

GD Forwell
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[, 1985,290,1670; Lancet, 1985,1,1229; Times, 16 May 1985; Daily Telegraph, l5 May 1985;Glasgow Herald, 14 May 1985; Community Medicine, (1985)7,155-6]

(Volume VIII, page 57)

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