Lives of the fellows

John Oldroyd Forfar

b.6 November 1916 d.14 August 2013
MC(1944) BSc St And(1938) MB ChB(1941) MRCP(1947) DCH(1948) MRCP Edin(1948) FRCP Edin(1953) MD(1958) FRCP(1964) MRCP Glasg(1978) FRCP Glasg(1978) Hon FRCPCH(1997)

John Forfar was a consultant paediatrician and professor at the University of Edinburgh, holding the Edward Clark chair of child life and health from 1964 to 1983. He was born in Glasgow, a son of the manse, mid-way through the carnage of the First World War. His father was David Forfar; his mother was Edith Elizabeth Forfar née Campbell. He graduated in medicine from St Andrews University and, after early training in adult medicine and infectious disease and some exposure to paediatrics, enlisted as a medical officer with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the early 1940s, subsequently volunteering in that capacity for the recently formed 47 Royal Marine Commando Unit.

He landed in France on D-Day with his unit, tasked with capturing the strategically important coastal town of Port-en-Bessin. This was the destination for Operation PLUTO (pipe line under the ocean), the key fuel supply for the Allied invasion. Being a good swimmer was particularly important on that day as his landing craft was blown up by a mine on approaching the beach and he was forced to swim ashore, arriving with no medical equipment and many casualties to care for. Although he said little to colleagues and friends of his many experiences in war-torn France between 1944 and 1945, these were chronicled in a book written in his retirement – From Omaha to the Scheldt: a history of 47 Royal Marine Commando (East Linton, Tuckwell Press, 2001). Port-en-Bessin was successfully captured despite high casualties. Captain Forfar was mentioned in despatches during this assault and won an immediate Military Cross in the autumn 1944 for the rescue under fire of a wounded comrade during the Allied attack on Walcheren, the island gateway to the port of Antwerp. Eisenhower described the capture of Walcheren as one of the most gallant and aggressive actions of the war. He returned to Port-en-Bessin for many years to commemorate D-day anniversaries and was honoured by the town in having a street named ‘Allée Professeur John Forfar’ at a commemoration ceremony led by the grandson of the wartime mayor.

The stories he told to his family of his experiences were more characteristic of his humanity and keen understanding of the frailties of human nature and the essential quirkiness of life. They included the story of a young soldier who came to see him to express dismay at the sight of a dead enemy soldier; an initially unsympathetic response softened greatly when the true fear was revealed: ‘it was his belt sir, it said “Gott mit uns”…surely he is on our side isn’t he?’

A painting by Leslie Cole in the Imperial War Museum shows John Forfar pulling shrapnel from the shoulder of a wounded soldier in September 1944 in a cellar in Sallenelle some five km from the French coast. The padre holds an oil lamp and assists. Of the several wounded soldiers waiting on the floor for treatment one is in gray uniform and is clearly German. The humanity of this scene is clear; the injured were treated with the resources available, whatever the circumstances.

Following his demobilisation, he trained in Dundee and then moved to Edinburgh in 1950, practising clinical and academic paediatrics for some 32 years, initially as a consultant to the Western General and Fife hospitals, and from 1964 at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. In his inaugural lecture he challenged the status of children’s hospitals and their low national healthcare priority. He made an emphatic case for subspecialisation within paediatrics and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the neonatal special care unit in the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion and the Edinburgh School of Community Paediatrics. Promotion of research in neonatology and broader child health issues was foremost throughout his career, with his most quoted publication being about the association between maternal drug ingestion and foetal abnormality, an issue as relevant today as 43 years ago when published (‘Associations between drugs administered during pregnancy and congenital abnormalities of the fetus.’ Br Med J. 1971 Mar 6;1[5748]:523-7). However, his scientific contributions were wide and varied, covering aspects of neonatal metabolism through to social paediatrics.

During his tenure as president of the British Paediatric Association he led the negotiations, not always harmonious, that eventually led to the establishment of the new and independent Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH). He received many awards recognising his stature in paediatrics across the globe, his most treasured being the James Spence medal of the British Paediatric Association in 1983 and the presidential medal of the recently formed RCPCH in 2003.

His passion during the latter stages of his career was the Textbook of paediatrics (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1973), which he co-edited and crafted into a standard paediatric text for some three decades.

As a medical son, being lectured to as an undergraduate by your father is an interesting experience. The suggestion that some lectures were top-heavy on facts was met with dismissal: ‘always give them more than they think they need’ was a maxim he pursued throughout his long life.

Leisure activities including mountaineering and canoeing were pursued with equal vigour to professional ones, and he climbed widely in Scotland and the Alps, as well as enjoying a small wooden beach chalet opposite the Bass Rock.

At the age of over 90 he faced a decision as to whether to undergo valve surgery for symptomatic aortic stenosis. In discussion with the surgeon he was asked directly whether he really wished to undergo major surgery at his age. ‘Excellent question,’ came the reply, along with a long list of remaining priorities in his life, uppermost being the care of his wife Isobel (née Fernback), to whom he was married for 69 years. He had two sons and a daughter, a teacher, a mathematician and a fellow physician. One of three grandchildren continues in medical practice in Edinburgh.

J Colin Forfar

[The Telegraph 21 August 2013 – accessed 22 December 2014; The Scotsman 28 August 2013 – accessed 22 December 2014; BMJ 2013 347 5982]

(Volume XII, page web)

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