Lives of the fellows

John Michael Jefferson

b.9 December 1916 d.4 August 2006
BA Oxon(1938) BSc(1940) BM BCh(1942) DM(1953) FRCP(1960)

John Michael Jefferson, known to his family and friends as ‘Michael’, was a consultant neurologist at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. He was the elder son of the distinguished neurosurgeon Sir Geoffrey Jefferson and his medically qualified Canadian wife Gertrude Flumerfelt, who in later life became a consulting psychiatrist. He was born in St Petersburg, where his father was then a surgeon at the Anglo Russian Hospital run by the British Red Cross. Educated at Rugby and Magdalen College, Oxford, his interest in neurology was fired by his tutor Eccles and by the anatomist Le Gros Clark, with whom he spent a year in neuroanatomical research for a BSc after obtaining an honours degree in physiology in 1938. He continued his clinical training at the Royal Infirmary in Manchester, where his future wife Margaret Wade was a fellow student, qualifying in 1942.

He served in the RAMC from 1942 to 1947 in the UK and Far East, reaching the rank of major as a medical specialist. After a period at the National Hospital, Queen Square, he moved to Birmingham in 1949 to a university post which carried honorary consultant rank as neurologist at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. He was subsequently appointed to its NHS staff in 1955, where he remained until retirement in 1981; he was also visiting neurologist to Warwick Hospital, and honorary consultant to the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology at Smethwick. He was senior clinical lecturer and tutor in neurology at the University of Birmingham, and sometime adviser in neurology to the Birmingham Regional Hospital Board.

He was elected FRCP in 1960 and was later an examiner for the College and a member of Council. He belonged to the Association of British Neurologists for many years, which bestowed honorary membership on him in 1986, a mark of recognition which gave him great pleasure. He was largely instrumental in founding the Midland Neurological Society, and was its first secretary and later its president. He was also president of the West Midlands Physicians Association in 1981, and belonged to the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland.

He was a shy man who did not make friends easily, with a temperamental bias towards always expecting the worst. But he was not a true depressive, and his wife had it right when she sometimes teasingly called him a happy pessimist. He was an avid reader of novels and biography and, when younger, of poetry, especially Eliot and Auden, and Sidney Keyes, who was killed fighting in North Africa during the Second World War. He was later taken by the wry verse of Philip Larkin. At one time he owned an extensive library of rare medical books mainly but not exclusively relating to the nervous system, and claimed to have read all of them. His particular heroes in medicine were, not surprisingly, Sherrington [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.523], Hughlings Jackson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.161], and especially Thomas Willis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.I, p.338], who he thought had had a seminal influence on the understanding of nervous process, as shown in his two master-works the Anatomy of the brain and On the soul of brutes, as great as that of Harvey in another field, though according to John Aubrey’s account he evidently lacked Harvey’s charisma.

Jefferson wrote many articles mainly on neurological topics, published in journals and books, but he did not flatter himself that they had contributed much to the advancement of learning. As he got older he became wary of clinical over investigation and tried (not always successfully) to restrict tests to those cases that were logically imperative. He was a careful neurological examiner of the old school and his sympathetic and unhurried manner endeared him to his patients, though the slowness of his rounds was often a trial to his ward sister and his junior staff.

He had a good deal of personal experience of illness, ranging from a severe anaphylactic reaction when he was a clinical student to recurrent bouts of painless haematuria in his thirties from a renal stone which ended by causing ureteric block, glaucoma from 1968, normal pressure hydrocephalus presenting as unsteadiness of balance and gait, successfully treated symptomatically by a CSF shunt in 1993, and in later years cardiovascular problems.

He and his devoted wife greatly enjoyed the freedom of their lives together in the first few years of his retirement, but its amenity thereafter was impaired when she was struck by a long drawn out and relentless cancer, which she faced for more than 16 years with great courage, ultimately predeceasing him in 2002. He was bereft by her death. He is survived by three children (Charlotte, Andrew and Simon), none of whom chose medicine as a career, which he and his wife sometimes regretted as a break in family tradition.

J M Jefferson

(Volume XII, page web)

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