Lives of the fellows

Alan William Johnston

b.8 January 1928 d.15 September 2012
MB BChir Cantab(1951) MRCP(1953) MD(1962) FRCP(1973) MRCP Edin(1979) FRCP Edin(1981) FRCP Glasg(1987)

Alan Johnston was a consultant physician and a senior clinical lecturer in medicine and genetics in Aberdeen. During an eventful and distinguished career, he rose to prominence in the medical establishment in Scotland and served as president of the Scottish Society of Physicians. Also, very significantly, he was one of a small group of dedicated physicians in the UK with an interest in genetic medicine who together realised that the practice of clinical genetics, where the ‘family’ or couple wanting children is the patient, as much as the individual, required specific knowledge, skills and attitudes. These pioneers laid the foundations of the emerging specialty of clinical genetics, much of which remains unchanged to this day, apart from adapting to the challenges of rapidly developing technologies. Through various working parties and committees, all the while practising as a full-time consultant physician, Alan contributed fully to a process that has left the NHS and UK medicine the legacy of a highly developed network of regional genetic centres and services, and a productive scientific research community.

Born in Manchester, the son of Frederick Johnston, a chartered secretary, and Florence Victoria Johnston née Fanning, Alan was educated at Manchester Grammar School, where he was a foundation scholar and a keen Scout and camper. With a view to studying medicine, he switched to sciences in the sixth form, and went on to gain an open exhibition to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1945, where he was active in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union and the sailing club. He completed his clinical studies at University College Hospital (UCH), London, where he was the Goldsmid exhibitioner and gained several prizes, including the gold medal in surgery.

Following graduation his early career was spent at UCH, followed by the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, and then National Service as a surgeon lieutenant at the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham. From 1956 to 1957 he was a registrar at Manchester Royal Infirmary, and subsequently a medical registrar at UCH. While at UCH he spent a year as a fellow in medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, under Victor McKusick [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] (who founded and developed the Mendelian inheritance in man catalogue [Mendelian inheritance in man: catalogs of autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, and X-linked phonotypes Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1966] ), which led to his life-long interest and practice in genetic medicine. From this fellowship he gained his Cambridge MD in 1962.

He returned to UCH, as a senior registrar and then a resident assistant physician. In 1966 he was appointed as a consultant physician in Aberdeen and began developing the clinical genetics service for northeast Scotland, as well as actively participating in the teaching of medical genetics at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The Clinical Genetics Society (CGS) was formed in 1970 and Alan was a founding committee member. Over the next two decades he served as a member or chair of numerous committees and working groups relating to clinical genetics, whether at the Royal College of Physicians, the Scottish Office or the CGS itself. From 1987 to 1988 he was president of the CGS, and in 1988 combined this role with his presidency of the Scottish Society of Physicians. He authored approximately 100 peer-reviewed publications before his retirement in 1992.

Alan was a very active man with a wide range of interests, at the heart of which was his devotion to his supportive wife and family. Apart from his sailing and maritime interests, he was a keen skier, gardener, amateur archaeologist, and loved to travel, all of which he continued throughout 20 years of retirement. He was never afraid to declare his Christian faith and beliefs, and was for many years session clerk of his local Church of Scotland in Aberdeen. He was also a strong supporter of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

His medical career spanned a remarkable era, which witnessed the discovery of the structure of DNA, the final realisation that humankind has 46 chromosomes (not 48, as believed for some years), the introduction of prenatal screening for the population, as well as prenatal testing for specific disorders where indicated, and the start of the Human Genome Project. These rapid advances, and their implications for individuals, families and society, have continually exercised ethicists and moral philosophers, both within and beyond the Christian Church. Alan was a true clinician and a compassionate pragmatist, recognising the heartache that many parents experience when caring for a child with a serious genetic disease, as well as their juxtaposed anxiety and hope in seeking to avoid a recurrence when extending their families. In offering advice to clinical genetics trainees on reading material regarding the ethics of these issues, he would always recommend checking the author list to see if a clinical geneticist had made a contribution, that is someone in direct contact with ordinary people and the immensely difficult dilemmas they sometimes face.

Alan was survived by his wife Shirley (née Knight), who is also a doctor, whom he married in 1964, his son and daughter, and three grandchildren.

Peter D Turnpenny

[Christ’s College Magazine 2013 p.98]

(Volume XII, page web)

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