Lives of the fellows

John Trevillian Wright

b.15 June 1921 d.3 July 2014
BM BCh Oxon(1945) MRCP(1947) DM(1953) FRCP(1964)

John Wright was a consultant general physician and gastroenterologist at the London Hospital. Born in Wimbledon, London, he spent much of his childhood in South America, where his father, Joseph Amyas Wright, was a manager for the Shell Oil company. His mother was Cicely Emma Wright née Trevillian. He attended Shrewsbury School, with many school holidays spent in the English countryside. With his parents frequently elsewhere, he was free to adventure and explore, developing an early and sustained interest in the natural world. Both of these formative influences were to remain lifelong enthusiasms. As a proud Old Salopian, he saw three sons and two grandsons follow his lead, and he continued to attend events in Shrewsbury into his nineties.

He went up to Worcester College, Oxford, in 1940, being awarded a Price university scholarship in anatomy and physiology, and was admitted to the London Hospital Medical College in 1942, winning prizes there in surgery, pathology and chemical pathology. He undertook war service in and around London, and graduated BM BCh in 1945. In January 1945, he married Kate Elliott, his wife of 56 years.

He undertook house officer posts at the London Hospital, and then National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps between 1946 and 1948. He was appointed senior registrar at St George’s Hospital in 1949, and was a lecturer and senior lecturer at the London Hospital Medical College from 1950 to 1958. During this time he was awarded a DM for his thesis on the management of barbiturate poisoning. He was appointed consultant physician to Whipps Cross Hospital in 1956 and to the London in 1958, and general physician to St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin in 1960. He was appointed as a part-time consultant physician at the London in 1964, remaining there until his retirement in 1986. In 1974, he was appointed the first consultant to the gastroenterology department, and for many years was the London’s senior physician. In keeping with this, he took pride in appearing smarter than his colleagues, with a home-grown rose as a buttonhole (keeping a store of these in the deep freeze at home for when his roses had ceased blooming).

He published over 40 articles over more than four decades, spanning a breadth of subjects befitting a general physician who was also one of the first generation of specialist gastroenterologists. As an author of primary clinical and laboratory research, and a lively contributor to correspondence in journals, his publications continue to be cited to the present day. He can be considered an early exponent of translational medicine, leading randomised controlled trials and exploring potential biomarkers of gastrointestinal disease. He was not too proud to admit the uncertain outcomes of clinical management, however, witnessed by his 1957 letter to the Lancet about the family dog: he successfully treated her with insulin for diabetes for some months until the night that she did not eat her dinner.

His large practice at the London lent itself to explorations of disease associations, such as the prevalence of other autoimmune conditions in patients with coeliac disease. He published on the efficacy of alginates to relieve symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux, and on how endoscopy could best be employed for patient benefit. Such work could be viewed as a natural part of his drive to provide good care for patients. He was an instinctive clinician: it took him very little time to determine how unwell a patient was, and when that assessment had been made he knew the right buttons to press to move the care forward.

His ability to enthuse his students was remarkable, being renowned as a consummately gentlemanly, courteous boss who would greet them with a wry grin. This courtesy and charm ensured that his students both liked and learned from him. To be so admired despite the ward round starting in the sluice with a selection of the gastroenterology bedpans attests to his personal charisma and passion for imparting wisdom to succeeding generations. His team was also quite prepared to commence the Friday afternoon ward round at 6pm after a busy afternoon in the out-patient clinic. The carrot was that clinical decisions were made prior to the weekend and a conclusion to the busy week was reached in a nearby hostelry before they all made our way home.

His retirement was very active, with dog walks in the Essex countryside and a daily swim offsetting his lifelong fondness for good food. His major day-to-day passion, however, was tending the large garden, greenhouses and orchard, from which he produced copious quantities of fruit, vegetables, roses, orchids, freesias and occasional barrels of home-brewed cider. In the summer, it was rare to see him inside the house, and the tones of Radio three would drift from whichever corner of the garden he was cultivating. He and Kate were stalwarts of local horticultural shows for many years, and in later years, under her instruction, he even turned his hand to baking and jam-making. He was disappointed to have to heed medical advice to cease climbing trees, another lifelong enthusiasm, after a hip replacement in 1989.

He was an enthusiastic father and grandfather, supporting five children and 11 grandchildren in their varied pursuits, and became a devoted carer for Kate after a major stroke and until her death from cancer some four years later in 2001. After this, he rediscovered many enthusiasms, including driving around the country to visit family, friends and favourite places. Fifty years a fellow, he sought out opportunities to participate in events at the Royal College of Physicians and other medical gatherings throughout his retirement. In his last years, he lived close to his daughter Sarah, who with her family supported him in maintaining an independent life in his own home, despite increasing frailty and a fractured femur in January 2014. Until the end of his life, he retained an interest in medicine in its broadest sense, and he continued to take pride in the achievements of the many doctors in whose development he had played a role.

Emma M M Burkitt Wright

[With contributions from and thanks to Charles Wright, Miles Wigfield, Russell Cowan and Denis Gibbs]

(Volume XII, page web)

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