Lives of the fellows

John Alan Mathews

b.19 June 1934 d.24 April 2013
MRCS LRCP(1957) BChir Cantab(1957) MB(1958) DObst(1960) MRCP Edin(1965) MRCP(1966) FRCP(1979) MD(1985)

John Mathews was a physician in the department of rheumatology, St Thomas’ Hospital, London, from 1970 until his retirement in 2000. He was born in London. His father, Henry Alexander Mathews, was a wholesale confectioner, and he had two well-known medical uncles – Alan Graham Apley, an orthopaedic surgeon, and John Apley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.17], a paediatrician, and it is likely that they encouraged his interest in medicine. He first went to Dulwich Hamlet School, briefly to the Jewish School for the Deaf (where his sister was a pupil), then Reading School and later to Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Hampstead, before reading medicine at Jesus College, Cambridge, at the age of 17. There he was active in the college’s social life, even joining the esoteric fraternity Roosters, and went on to Guy’s Hospital Medical School, qualifying in 1957.

His six-month pre-registration medical post was at the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital, Taplow, where his interest in rheumatology may have been kindled. He spent two years in general practice, before returning to hospital medicine at St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey. He was then a junior registrar and registrar in the department of physical medicine at the London Hospital for three years.

John first went to St Thomas’ in 1967 as a senior registrar in physical medicine, working with James Cyriax, whom he greatly admired, and Tony Yates [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. He stayed in the department of physical medicine, later called rheumatology, until his retirement in 2000. He was clinical director of rheumatology from 1990 to 1995, and later director of the specialty.

His main interest was in physical medicine, and particularly in diseases of the spine, on the treatment of which he wrote his Cambridge MD thesis. He published extensively in this area, and brought chemonucleolysis from Canada, although this has now been superseded by neurosurgery. Rather appropriately, he severely injured his upper cervical spine in a skiing accident, narrowly escaping permanent neurological injury because miraculously the transverse ligament did not rupture. Unperturbed, after a spell on his back, he mobilised in an external ‘halo’ metal frame, but the spine required surgical fusion. He was left with a rigid neck, gave up skiing, and presented knowledgeable and amusing lectures around his own case history. Indeed he narrated an account of his accident and injury in a programme on BBC Bristol.

Outside medicine, John’s passion was music, both playing the violin and listening to music, particularly by his idol Mozart. He played in the European Doctors Orchestra and was for 10 years honorary president of the St Thomas’ Music Society. He went on to combine his knowledge of music with his profession by setting up a clinic dealing with the physical problems suffered by musicians, which continued after his retirement. He published several reviews and papers on this special area, which he called ‘the agony of the ecstasy’, and more would have followed.

John was a careful clinician, using the neglected skills of physical medicine, which later became the province of sport and exercise medicine, and always found time to advise and treat many friends and colleagues. He was a popular teacher of both students and trainees.

Following his retirement, he became interested in the effects of music on the brain, and organised two successful meetings of the fledgling retired fellows’ association of the Royal College of Physicians, which he helped to found in 2007, around this subject. Publications would have undoubtedly followed. He was renowned for searching for bargain last minute tickets to the theatre and concert halls for his family and friends, and for fighting injustice in the form of parking fines or poor service, this once taking him to the small claims court, where not surprisingly he was successful! He frequently disdained the motor car in favour of local journeys on two wheels, his ancient four wheel model almost always resting in the basement garage under his last home close to St Thomas’.

He sat on the council of the British Society for Rheumatology from 1991 to 1994 and of the British Association of Rheumatology and Rehabilitation, and was president of the rheumatology and rehabilitation section of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1992 to 1993. He was an honorary civilian consultant adviser in rheumatology to the Army from 1993 to 1999. He served on the Prince of Wales’ Advisory Group on Disability, was treasurer of the British League Against Rheumatism, and sat on the executive committee of the Heberden Society and the research committee of the Foundation of Integrated Medicine. On retiring, for six years (from 2004 to 2010), together with his wife Wendy (née Dewhurst), he was an active elected patient governor of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

He died after a holiday in Burma, following a sudden and short illness in St Thomas’, leaving his wife, a physiotherapist and author, a son and two daughters, one of whom is a rheumatologist.

Richard Thompson

[BMJ 2013 347 5380]

(Volume XII, page web)

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