Dr John F B Smith: An appreciation

ONE night in 1942, when the Germans were still bombing English cities, John Smith was sitting on his bed in his family home in Palmers Green, London. His thoughts turned to his grandfather and on a sudden compulsion he got up and crossed the room to fetch a book.

Moments later an unexploded bomb dropped through the roof and landed on his bed. His decision to get the book saved his life.

His grandfather Smith had been Chief Engineer on the Leviathan; the book, as it turned out, was about that same liner.

Prior to Leviathan, his grandfather had been assigned to the Titanic, only to lose the job when Edward Smith was appointed Captain. Having two Smiths in the top positions of command was considered unsafe. Had Edward not been appointed, John’s grandfather would have gone down with the Titanic – and Dr. John Smith would never have been. So on two counts, good fortune had favoured his early life.

He was born in London, on January 4, 1938. His schooling was in St Albans, where one of his travelling companions was Stephen Hawking, three years younger his junior, and who would become a world-renowned physicist. John was not a school prefect at the time, but he always remembered the junior Stephen asking “Why not? – You’re much better than the rest.”

Smith set his heart on becoming a doctor. He did not care for London, so was delighted to gain admission to St Andrews in 1956. He thrived there, and excelled at rugby, being selected wing three-quarter for Scottish Universities – but more recently he was less keen on the game because of the risk of injury.

He met his wife-to-be, Maggie, also a medical student, at a party in a flat overlooking the Old Course. A few years later, they were very happily married and had four children, each of whom did well. Maggie’s death in 2013, was a shattering blow and left a huge void in John’s life.

After graduation his first training jobs were at Dundee and Aberdeen Royal Infirmaries where he spent five years before moving to the Glasgow Teaching Hospitals for a further seven years.

He was appointed Consultant Physician to Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary in 1973 before moving to Stirling Royal Infirmary three years later. His specific interests were in cardiology and endocrinology but he had been trained in general medicine and always retained that expertise and interest - an asset in this age of increasing sub-specialisation.

In complex clinical situations, his was a much sought-after opinion. The more puzzling and the rarer the case, the better. John had a warm, caring and engaging personality which comforted his patients. This, along with a keen and enquiring mind, made him a first-rate physician who provided unstinting service through his 26 years at Stirling.

John was a larger-than-life character and a gifted, enthusiastic teacher. He handed on his knowledge and skills to medical students at Stirling and in Glasgow, where he continued with regular teaching slots. He would emphasise the importance of careful history taking from the patient and thorough clinical examination, principles he himself adhered to.

With his wide-ranging knowledge and amusing anecdotes, he was popular with students regularly receiving in recognition messages of appreciation.

He was endlessly curious, and published many research papers through his career mainly relating, early on, to advances in thyroid research, management of thyrotoxicosis and localisation of deep-vein thrombosis.

Later, he obtained a grant from Novartis to employ a full-time radiation biologist and in collaboration with Dr Bill Millar of Glasgow University, working from Stirling Royal, he researched into tissue plasminogen activators (tPAs) and published work in the journal Thrombosis Research, which then contributed to the life-saving thrombolysin emergency (‘clot bursting’) therapies now available.

Necessary for their research was colostrum collected from calving cows on neighbouring farms around Stirling.

John was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and as President of the Scottish Society of Physicians in 1997- 98 and for many years was an Examiner in the MRCP examination. He had a busy private practice based in King’s Park Hospital, Stirling, and also acted as Chief Medical Officer with Scottish Amicable Assurance and Prudential Assurance.

Always cheery and busy and with a large circle of friends, John had a great zest for knowledge and for life. He read voraciously books of all kinds as well as scientific and medical journals. Even in retirement he still subscribed to The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and Drug Discovery.

He was a polymath with an amazing range of knowledge and interests. He travelled widely, visiting exotic, remote and sometimes dangerous destinations not generally recommended for travel, including Uzbekistan, Isfahan in Iran, and Israel around the time of the Yom Kippur War. He brought back with him impressive paintings and tribal rugs in his children’s luggage.

He bought a 20-acre field adjoining his house in Kippen and here he and Maggie, who was the original enthusiast, gradually established an Arboretum, with trees they planted as saplings from such distant lands as New Zealand and Norfolk Island. The Arboretum has featured on TV’s Beechgrove Gardens and has been part of the Scotland’s Garden Scheme.

He was also an Elder in the village Kirk and had many a post-service debate with the delightful lady minister who remembers “being kept on her toes.“ Most of all he enjoyed being with his children and their families.

At his twice-weekly open-house coffee mornings he would catch up on local chatter and, invariably, end up in debate on the troublesome issues of the day.

His death is a great loss to all who knew him. To John, who wondered about everything, death was an adventure into the unknown.

He is survived and will be sorely missed by each of his four children and their families – Fiona and Michael, Tommy and Caroline, Katie and Richard, Johnny and Kirsty and by each of his nine grandchildren.