Lives of the fellows

John Mark Gibson

b.5 April 1953 d.25 September 2010
MB BCh BOA Dublin(1976) MRCP(1979) MD(1984) FRCP(1994) FRCPI(2000)

Mark Gibson was a consultant neurologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. He was born on Easter Sunday in London. His father, John Gibson, was professor of mental health at Queen’s University Belfast and was of Northern Irish stock, as was his mother, Emily Davey, who was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, a stalwart of the church. Mark’s school days were spent at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, a grammar school for boys, known in Belfast as ‘Inst’. At school, he flourished academically, but was not interested in sports. He preferred musical pursuits, taking up the double bass. Through music, as a member of the City of Belfast and Northern Ireland Youth Orchestras, he met his wife Frances Dillon in the bass section in 1969, when he was only 16. At that early age, trips to coffee shops were furtive, in case they were spotted together by Inst boys. They were devoted to each other for the rest of his life.

Mark opted to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin. After house jobs in Dublin he moved to Belfast to join a senior house officer rotation. Experience at Claremont Street Hospital and in the neurology unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast encouraged him to enter training in neurology. Following a short period as a registrar in general medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, he worked in Southampton from 1980 to 1982 as a registrar in neurology under the guidance of the Belfast graduate, Philip Kennedy. He then held a research fellowship at the London Hospital in Whitechapel from 1982, where he performed research on Parkinson’s disease under the guidance of Chris Kennard, resulting in an MD thesis. As part of this work he developed methods of recording eye movements in neurological diseases. This was an interest he continued and developed for the rest of his professional life. In 1985 he was appointed to the post of senior registrar in neurology in Belfast, and in 1988 he was appointed as a consultant neurologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast City Hospital and Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry.

Expert in general neurology, Mark was a valued colleague within the medical communities in Belfast and Derry, providing valuable assistance with difficult diagnostic problems and in the resolution of clinical dilemmas. Deeply committed to the principles of the NHS, he did not accept private patients. He developed a sub-specialty interest in the study of people with movement disorders, particularly Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. In Belfast City Hospital he initiated a multidisciplinary clinic to care for people who had such conditions. This gave an opportunity to perform systematic research studies of clinical and genetic aspects of movement disorders, resulting in publications that are widely cited.

With the assistance of Alan Collins, using a modified dental chair with an improvised head clamp and a set of LED lights, he developed his own laboratory for the recording of eye movements. This do-it-yourself apparatus worked well and was used to study people with Huntington’s disease and pre-symptomatic carriers identified by Patrick Morrison. Previous case series were very small, and a major series was just within double figures. They helped define the ocular motor physiology in Huntington’s disease. A seminal paper and a book chapter followed. In his modest, understated manner, he thought these contributions would suffice, and they did. He was almost embarrassed to be a ‘world expert’ based on an analysis of several dozen cases. Mark had many scholarly attributes. He had high personal standards, deploring the prevalent imperative to publish at all costs, with scant regard to quality. ‘Salami slicing’ of data he deplored.

The main focus of the movement disorder clinic was Parkinson’s disease. Funding was established for the appointment of specialist nurses, and together they applied the principles of best practice for the treatment of patients with Parkinson’s. Mark worked closely with the Parkinson’s Disease Society and was their medical adviser, ably assisted in that role by his wife, a speech therapist by profession.

An enthusiastic advocate of the ‘Quo Vadis’ desk and pocket diaries, he found such ‘old technology’ trusty and reliable, not like modern electronic devices. Frequently, at some point in a conversation, he would produce his trusty diary from his pocket, and scribble a few notes for future reference.

Mark played an important role in the development of postgraduate education for specialist registrar trainees in neurology throughout Ireland. He was the postgraduate trainer for neurology trainees in Belfast for many years. With Michael Hutchinson in Dublin, he took a lead in the development of a monthly day-release scheme with a defined curriculum.

He was active in the Association of British Neurologists, representing the interests of Northern Irish neurologists on the services sub-committee as that committee defined and monitored standards of care for people with diseases of the nervous system throughout the UK.

He freely donated his talents to promote the careers of young doctors through his editorship of the Ulster Medical Journal. On occasions, guiding novice authors to produce a final text that was worthy of publication could be challenging. He was always considerate and courteous. Novice authors will recall helpful changes written with flourishes of green or brown fountain pen ink. Mark reformed the journal, introducing the now familiar A4 format. Despite pressures of time and cost, for 10 years he was the vital force behind the journal. His devoted work for the journal was recognised by the Ulster Medical Society with the rare honour of the awarding of an honorary fellowship of the society in 2005.

Mark had a wide range of interests outside medicine. He was an enthusiastic cyclist. In early married life he and Frances shared a tandem that they used for vigorous camping holidays. Later, with a friend from Trinity days, he had an annual cycling holiday often in the French Alps on the routes used in the Tour de France. For 25 years Mark was the leader of the bass section of the Studio Symphony Orchestra.

Mark was above all a family man. In 2006, when he became ill and submitted to the requirements of a bone marrow transplant, he took great comfort from his close ties with his children. After a year he returned to work when not fully fit. The only aspect of his work that he did not continue was the weekly journey to Altnagelvin for morning and afternoon clinics. After a further year, he was unable to continue work and retired on the grounds of ill health. He derived great comfort from close friends and family. During this period significant publications continued to appear in international journals. In the week before he died, he put the final touches to the plans for his funeral and inspirational memorial service at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, where he was a regular member of the congregation. He was survived by Frances, his daughter Amy and son Laurence.

Stanley Hawkins

[, 2011 342 690; Ulster Medical Journal 2011;80(1);4]

(Volume XII, page web)

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