Lives of the fellows

John Kingdon Guy Webb

b.29 October 1918 d.17 August 2010
OBE(1971) MB BCh Oxon FRCP(1967)

John Kingdon Guy Webb was director and professor of paediatrics at the Christian Medical College and Hospital (CMCH), Vellore, India. Born in London, he was the son of Arthur Herbert Guy Webb, a manufacturer, and his wife Elsie née Greengrass, whose father, Henry, was a company director. Educated at Highgate School, he studied medicine at Balliol College, Oxford and the Radcliffe Infirmary. After qualifying he joined the Army as a regimental medical officer serving from 1942 to 1945 and then became a graded physician with the British Army on the Rhine from 1946 to 1947.

On demobilisation he was children’s registrar at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford from 1948 to 1950, and then moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to train in paediatrics with James Spence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.386] at the Newcastle Babies Hospital and the Royal Victoria Infirmary. While there, he was inspired by a lecture, given by Frank Lake, on the CMCH at Vellore in South India, and he decided that was where he wanted to work.

In 1953 he was appointed professor of paediatrics at the CMCH. At the time only six of the medical colleges in the country had a children’s department. There were only a minimal number of dedicated paediatricians and he was to be the only one in Vellore. Alongside a huge clinical workload of children with sometimes very complicated disorders, he found time to train up a new generation of paediatricians. Head of the department from 1953 to 1967, he became deputy director and, finally, director. He made a point of encouraging research and his group was the first to identify Japanese B virus as the cause of an encephalitis epidemic in Tamil Nadu and filarial infection as the hitherto unknown cause of a common respiratory complaint, tropical eosinopilia. In the community he set up field virus laboratories and employed teams of people to study common childhood problems including malnutrition. In 1970 he renamed the department of paediatrics the ‘department of child health’ in an attempt to put the focus on preventive measures and more positive aspects of child welfare. He was president of the Indian Pediatric Society from 1958 to 1959.

After 18 years in India, he returned to Newcastle in 1972 and became James Spence professor of child health. Here again he emphasised the importance of encouraging his students to get involved in the community. Each student was allocated a family with a disabled child and asked, with the help of a community paediatrician to write a full report on the child and the effect of its disabilities on the family. He also helped to initiate a major project to set standards for the care of children in general practice.

After his retirement, he became director of the Child to Child programme which encouraged children in developing countries to share information they were given on simple health issues with their family and neighbours. He also worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital specialising in tropical paediatrics.

An outstanding sportsman at school, he won the Kinnaird cup playing Eton Fives and was in the Guinness book of records for many years. At Oxford he won a soccer blue and was in the Eton Fives IV.

In 1949 he married Alison Dora née Reid, whose father managed an export/import business. She was a graduate in medicine from St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a psychiatrist. During their time in India she set up a local school on the veranda of their home. They had five children and Alison returned to the UK in the 1960s to enable them to attend English schools. Four of their children became medical practitioners and one is a linguist and oenologist married to a doctor. When he died Alison survived him, along with their children, Andrew, Philip, Michael, Clare and Jonathan and 15 grandchildren. Jonathan was, at one time, England rugby captain. Alison died on 16 September 2014.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2010 343 4578;CMC newsline 2010 48 – both accessed 29 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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