Lives of the fellows

John Lloyd Burton

b.29 August 1938 d.10 November 2018
BSc Manch(1961) MB ChB(1964) MRCP(1967) MD(1971) FRCP(1978)

John Burton, professor of dermatology at Bristol, was a pivotal figure in British dermatology, with contributions to writing, research, teaching and leadership within his specialty. He combined his many talents as an academic and kindly physician with a wonderful sense of humour. Although he spent his consultant career as a dermatologist, John Burton had a very thorough training as a physician and sustained his links with the Royal College of Physicians as a writer of questions and examiner for the MRCP exam from 1987 to 1992.

He became increasingly widely known from the 1970s onwards through his writing – firstly for those studying for the MRCP with Aids to postgraduate medicine (Edinburgh, Livingstone, 1970), soon followed by Aids to undergraduate medicine (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1973), Aids to medicine for nurses (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1976), Aids to medicine for dental students (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1983) and Essentials of dermatology (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1979). In these slim texts, John combined the essentials for understanding the subjects with an iconoclastic humour, such that readers found that they could after all remember those lists that were needed to pass exams.

John was born in Buxton, Derbyshire, the son of Lloyd Burton, a school teacher, and was the first in his family to go to a grammar school and then on to university. He had a highly successful undergraduate career at Manchester, obtaining many prizes and a BSc in physiology before moving through a series of prestigious junior posts in medicine – the professorial unit in Manchester, Hammersmith, the Brompton, then Edinburgh – where he undertook cardiovascular research before becoming a dermatologist.

John was attracted to the stimulating research-orientated environment of Sam Shuster’s dermatology department at Newcastle, where he joined a group who would later have a major influence on British dermatology – including Bill Cunliffe (later professor at Leeds), Malcom Greaves (later professor at the Institute of Dermatology), Martin Black (later professor at St Thomas’) and Rod Dawber (later at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford). His own work was on sebaceous gland physiology, biochemistry and pathology. He was appointed to the first academic post in dermatology in Bristol as a senior lecturer and consultant dermatologist in 1973. Although facilities for research initially promised did not materialise, John nonetheless continued to produce research and supervise postgraduate students, mainly on the biochemistry and endocrinology of sebaceous glands and epidermal lipids. He established teaching in dermatology for undergraduates, GPs, nurses, dentists and many other groups. He was made a reader in 1982 and then professor in 1993.

He was a busy and talented clinician in Bristol Royal Infirmary’s dermatology department, retaining his general physician’s approach and he brought the rigour of his scientific training to clinical work. As well as his scientific research papers, John made many important contributions to the literature, particularly in therapeutics, including some that were a ‘first’, such as the benefit of metronidazole for rosacea, a double-blind controlled trial published in The Lancet in 1976 (‘Treatment of rosacea by metronidazole’ Lancet. 1976 Jun 5;1[7971]:1211-2).

He had many key roles in British dermatology. He served for six years on the executive committee of the British Association of Dermatologists, was chairman of its therapeutics sub-committee and was its president from 1995 to 1996. He was a very successful editor of the British Journal of Dermatology (from 1981 to 1985). He was the adviser in dermatology to the chief medical officer (from 1988 to 1994). His clinical prowess was recognised when he was chosen to be president of the dermatology section at the Royal Society of Medicine (from 1994 to 1995). He was an editor for three editions of Rook’s textbook of dermatology (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1986, 1991 and 1999), and also contributed nine chapters to this major British textbook. He wrote many leaders and editorials to the British Medical Journal and The Lancet – most anonymously.

The humorous side to John was sometimes seen in formal publications such as ‘Prolonged haemorrhage following nail clipping’ (regarding his botched attempt to trim the claws of a budgie), published in The Lancet in 1983 (Lancet. 1983 Dec 24-31;2[8365-66]:1484-5), then reprinted in Howard J Bennett’s The best of medical humor (Hanley and Belfus, 1991) and particularly in his many after dinner speeches and guest lectures.

His erudition, enquiring mind, encyclopaedic knowledge and memorable style of presentation – almost always using his inimitable sense of fun – made him a much sought-after lecturer. He gave the prestigious Parkes Weber lecture at the Royal College of Physicians (‘Diet and dermatology’ 1988), and the Dowling Oration (‘The logic of dermatological diagnosis’ 1980) and the Deville lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine (‘Cutaneous and sexual stereotyping’ 1996).

John retired from his clinical and university positions in Bristol in 1996 and moved first to Dorset and then Somerset. He continued to work for a further two years as a consultant dermatologist at Dorchester Hospital.

From an early age he had enjoyed painting, and for more than 30 years John was a highly-regarded designer bookbinder. After retirement, he took up stone carving, jewellery making and furthered his gardening skills, particularly with bonsai trees.

Despite having suffered ill health for many years, John maintained his curiosity for life, wrote a blog with his thoughts and continued as many of his interests as possible. For 54 years, he was happily married to Pat (née Crankshaw), who was a consultant histopathologist at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. It was a devastating loss when Pat died in February 2018. John died from heart failure in November of the same year. He was survived by two daughters, a son (a professor of ophthalmology) and nine grandchildren.

Cameron Kennedy

[BMJ 2018 363 5226 www.bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k5226 – accessed 12 February 2019]

(Volume XII, page web)

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