Lives of the fellows

John Michael Naish

b.11 May 1915 d.6 August 2010
MB BChir Cantab(1939) MRCP(1945) MD(1947) FRCP(1954)

John Naish started his career as a general physician and later became the first gastroenterologist in the south west region, for many years seeing gastroenterology patients referred to him from a huge area extending from Cornwall to Warwick, and from Pembrokeshire to Swindon. He was an energetic polymath, a farmer, an expert gardener, especially with camellias and magnolias, a bird photographer, a keen sailor with an interest in sailing history, and the author of a number of books, both medical and non-medical.

Both of his parents were doctors. His father, Albert Ernest Naish [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.302], was a well-regarded consultant physician and paediatrician in Sheffield. His mother, Lucy née Wellburn, qualified at the Royal Free Medical School and worked as a doctor in a munitions factory in Sheffield during the First World War while at the same time looking after six children and giving birth to two more during the war. Three of John’s siblings also became doctors. His sister, Alice Mary Stewart [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.550], identified the link between low dose radiation from X-rays during pregnancy with the later development of childhood malignancy.

After the First World War, the Naish family rented and later purchased a small holiday cottage at Four Mile Bridge, Anglesey, where on regular visits the young John developed his lifelong love of the sea and boats, as well as a love of the countryside. He apparently chose medicine as his future career at the age of six.

In 1933, John went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study medicine. These were troubled times politically. On a trip to Germany, John got into trouble for failing to make a Hitler salute when watching the return of the Wiesbaden contingent from a Nuremberg Rally. Increasing numbers of Jewish refugees appeared in Cambridge, one of whom, Hans Krebs [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.325], gave a brilliant series of lectures on liver metabolism, which John attended. John qualified in the spring of 1939, as the shadow of Hitler’s war was approaching.

After marriage and a brief honeymoon with Nora (née Reid), he became a house physician to John Ryle [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.595] at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Wartime service in the Royal Navy took him to the tropics for two years, based first in Mombasa, then in Ceylon. The multiple attacks of dysentery and the after-effects that he suffered may (he said) have been the beginning of his interest in the gastrointestinal tract! Back in England, he was posted to the dockyard at Portsmouth, from where, twice a week, he travelled to the Hammersmith Hospital, attending the teaching ward rounds, including those of John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] and Charles Fletcher [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.146], and then passing the MRCP examination.

Leaving the Navy in 1946, he was appointed as a tutor then a lecturer in medicine at Bristol University, based at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, under Richard Clarke [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.74] and Bruce Perry [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.384]. He became a consultant physician at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, in 1950, around the start of the NHS.

Soon after this, he was driving past the village of Iron Acton, in the country to the north east of Bristol, when he came across a ‘for sale’ sign, advertising the forthcoming auction of the ancient Algar’s Manor. Scraping together the sum of £6,850 brought success at the auction, and John and Nora became the owners of the manor house with outbuildings and 12 acres of rented fields, a wood, two acres of garden and half a mile of the River Frome. This house with its gardens, farm and river became a focus for a range of activities (and very hard work), which formed a perfect contrast and escape from the demands of being a consultant physician. The nearby Frenchay Hospital, which following its wartime role had been largely a specialised surgical hospital with departments of thoracic surgery, neurosurgery and plastic surgery, had no medical department and, soon after moving to Algar’s Manor, John was asked if he would be prepared to develop a department of medicine there, so that approval for a school of nursing could be obtained. As a result, John found himself with inpatient beds and outpatient duties in four separate hospitals (Southmead, Frenchay, Cossham and Manor Park hospitals).

In addition to his very busy general medical workload, John decided that he would like to specialise in the relatively new area of gastroenterology, despite the disapproval of Bruce Perry, who said: ‘any fool can treat an ulcer’. He took himself off to spend two weeks with Francis Avery Jones [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] at the Central Middlesex Hospital, where he learned how to use a Hermon Taylor gastroscope and saw the benefits of a collaborative gastroenterology unit, in which physicians, surgeons, nurses, radiologists and laboratory staff collaborated closely in the management of patients. Full of enthusiasm, John returned and set up similar arrangements in Bristol, together with his surgical colleague, Charles Bartlett.

Over the next years, John produced an outpouring of innovative ideas and writings, with a series of books and clinical papers on a variety of topics. Perhaps the best known books were Clinical apprentice (Bristol, 1948) with John Apley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.17] (later editions were with Alan Read [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.440]) and Basic gastroenterology. Including diseases of the liver… (Bristol, John Wright & Sons, 1965) with Alan Read (later editions with Richard Harvey). He was the first to describe steatorrhoea as a complication of small bowel bacterial contamination, published in the very first edition of Gut (1960, Mar;1:62-66) and the first to describe lymphoma as a complication of coeliac disease. He had a particular interest in the influence of the mind on somatic symptoms, and wrote papers on factitious disease and Münchausen syndrome by proxy. He revived the Gloucestershire Medico-Convivial Society, which had been started by Edward Jenner, who had lived in nearby Berkeley. Jenner and his medical colleagues met regularly (usually in the Fleece Inn, Rodborough) to dine and to give papers on medical and other matters in a congenial and sociable atmosphere. John reincarnated this tradition as the Severnside Gut Club, with the same aims as Jenner’s, though with a gastroenterological slant, and this remains active today. He was an enthusiastic promoter of continuing education and of good communication between all medical and paramedical staff and general practitioners in his roles as clinical dean, postgraduate dean (designing and building at Frenchay Hospital, the first postgraduate centre in the region), chairman of medical staff, president of Cossham Medical Society and, at the Royal College of Physicians, as a councillor (between 1970 and 1973) and examiner (from 1973 to 1979).

Away from medicine, he farmed sheep and planted magnolias and camellias in his garden beside the River Frome, creating the Fromeside walk and opening the garden in aid of the National Gardens Scheme and the National Association for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. He wrote books on his early life – A physician’s eye (Lewiston, NY, Lampeter, Edwin Mellen Press, c1977), on sea navigation aids, and on the voyages of George Vancouver, and wrote articles on sailing for The Mariner’s Mirror, the journal of the Society for Nautical Research. After separating from Nora in 1969, John married Barbara Hammer, with whom he enjoyed a prolonged, active and happy life at Algar’s, as the centre of his very large extended family.

Richard Harvey

[Brit.med.J.,2009 339 5168; Bristol Evening Post 27 August 2009]

(Volume XII, page web)

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