Lives of the fellows

John Barnes Foster

b.26 June 1930 d.6 February 2013
MB BS Durh(1953) MRCP(1955) MD Newcastle(1973) FRCP(1970)

John Barnes Foster, always known as ‘Jack’, was a fine clinical neurologist, based in Newcastle. He was born in Newcastle, the son of Richard Rogerson Foster, an accountant, and Maude Margaret Foster née Barnes. After schooling at Newcastle Royal Grammar School, he went on to an outstanding career as a student at Newcastle Medical School. He collected many undergraduate prizes and graduated MB BS with honours in 1953.

After two years’ service as a medical officer in the Royal Navy, he trained initially in Newcastle, first in general medicine and then in neurology, before spending two years at the National Hospital Queen Square in London, first as an academic registrar and then as a senior resident house physician. Later he held the King's College travelling fellowship in medicine, and a Fulbright travelling fellowship as a fellow in neurology and neuropathology at Harvard University at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, working with the notable Raymond D Adams.

On his return to Newcastle, he became first assistant to Henry Miller [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.396] and John Walton in the department of neurology at the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), where his reputation as an outstanding teacher of both undergraduate and postgraduate students was quickly established, and he was recognised as a skilful, supremely competent and compassionate physician.

Appointed as a consultant neurologist at the Newcastle General Hospital and to the Newcastle region in the early 1960s, his reputation grew among junior and senior staff alike in the newly-opened regional neurological centre in the Newcastle General Hospital, and also throughout the region, where for a time he undertook outpatient clinics in Dryburn Hospital, Durham, and also held intermittent clinics in Sunderland and Teesside until consultant neurologists were appointed in both of those centres.

In addition to his clinical ability, he was involved in many research projects, leading to the publication of many scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. He wrote on many topics, including multiple sclerosis and head injury, and was co-author of a notable monograph on syringomyelia (Syringomyelia, London, Philadelphia, Saunders, 1973). But it was perhaps his work on the head injuries of steeplechase jockeys which won for him an increasing national and international reputation, leading to his being appointed an honorary reader at Newcastle University.

He was elected a foreign member of several neurological associations overseas, including the American Neurological Association, and was president of the Association of British Neurologists in the 1990s. As his reputation grew, he was invited to lecture and teach as a visiting professor in several centres overseas, including Peru, Canada and India, and he held several named lectureships at centres in the UK.

He was elected a member of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland, and served on the council of the Royal College of Physicians and on the medical advisory committees of the MS Society and the Parkinson's Disease Society.

For myself, he was a much-valued, respected and admired colleague and a close friend, and when in 1971 I became dean of the medical school and was compelled to reduce my clinical commitments at the Newcastle General Hospital, I knew that Jack and the other neurologists who were appointed to work with him would lead the clinical service at the neurological centre with consummate skill and outstanding judgement, as indeed proved to be the case.

Throughout his clinical career, Jack had an extensive private practice, through which he achieved a notable local reputation. In addition, his extensive medico-legal practice won him the respect and admiration not only of clinical colleagues, but also of members of the legal profession throughout the northeast.

His ability and reputation led to his being appointed chairman of the medical staff, first at the Newcastle General Hospital, and subsequently of the Newcastle hospitals group, a role which he fulfilled with common sense, energy and skill. He retired from the NHS in 1983, but continued with his private and medico-legal practice for several years.

As a man, Jack was an individual of charm. He was a born leader and a convivial companion in the many social, sporting and other events centred upon the departments of neurology at the RVI and at the General Hospital, events where there was a warm spirit of professional collaboration and also delightful competitiveness, not least on the golf course and on the cricket field, in each of which venues Jack performed outstandingly.

From his medical student days, where he was a leading member of the medical school golf team, that game was one of his major leisure interests. In this he was warmly supported by his wife Jennifer (née Waters), herself a lady golfer of note. When Jack was appointed captain of the Northumberland Golf Club at Gosforth Park, a club where ladies, by tradition, were not allowed to cross the front veranda (in case gentlemen watching the game there might feel obliged to stand when they entered), he ceremonially accompanied his wife in a procession across the veranda and into what until then had been the men's bar: the ancient barriers were successfully demolished. Jack also became a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

He was also a competent skier, often visiting France, Switzerland or Austria on winter holidays. In addition, he was an avid collector of fine art and antiques, and for a few years delighted in owning and driving a splendid Rolls Royce car.

In his retirement he and his wife spent several months a year at their second home in the Algarve and went on lengthy cruises about twice a year, spending much of the time at sea playing bridge. Jack Foster died suddenly while cruising in the Pacific. He was survived by Jennifer, their two sons (Jonathan and James), one daughter (Sally) and six grandchildren. They can be assured that he will be remembered as a fine man, a valued friend and colleague to many, and someone who has left a mark on Newcastle medicine, and on national and international neurology.

Lord Walton of Detchant

[The Times 22 March 2013;Brit.med.J.,2013,346,1247]

(Volume XII, page web)

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