Obituary: John Roberts, general practitioner

Legendary figure in Edinburgh medicine served people of Piershill for 40 years. Picture: JP
Legendary figure in Edinburgh medicine served people of Piershill for 40 years. Picture: JP
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BORN: Glasgow, 8 December, 1934. Died: Edinburgh, 21 December, 2014, aged 80.

Dr John Roberts, who has died aged 80, was a legendary figure in the world of Edinburgh medicine who diligently served the people of Piershill for almost 40 years whilst simultaneously building up a reputation as a trustworthy friend to many in the world of the arts and sciences.

A small, comfortable man with a ready smile and a rock- steady eye, he had been brought up in the small mining village of Whitburn where both his father and grandfather had been the landlord of a thriving pub, the Old Market Inn.

The pub was a busy one and followed the tradition of offering no lavatory facilities for women, his father believing decent women wouldn’t allow their husbands to visit pubs where women might drink.

The inn served beer to often thirsty miners staggering in from their shifts and often belligerent recruits fresh and sparky from the parade grounds of the local police college. It has been speculated that perhaps John learned his social skills clearing tables in that confrontational environment and he could certainly handle himself in every kind of social situation and never unintentionally irritated anyone

Although an only child, John was both happy and successful at Bathgate Academy, qualifying for University entrance when still in the fifth year. He went on to study medicine at Edinburgh, where he was part of the generation charged with moulding the National Health Service.

John’s national service was spent as a junior doctor attached to the signals corps of the Gurkhas and whilst he never saw action at war, his two years in the Far East (Seremban) saw him undertaking a number of demanding roles including the delivery of over a hundred babies, many without there being electricity in the home.

Perhaps because of this experience, his doctoring was highly practical and straightforward. One noted Edinburgh vet later admitted that he had been on John’s roll at the surgery because he knew his advice would be both competent and delivered honestly and without embellishment.

He believed strongly in his patients taking responsibility for their own health and would often observe that given that in the animal kingdom animals only played when young, his patients shouldn’t be too surprised if their bodies let them down if they played when they were old!

On returning to Edinburgh he was to meet and marry, in 1976, Annie Slora, a bubbly young dental student. Her effusive personality complemented his steadier approach and they were to work as a successful and popular team, with their home becoming an epicentre for a good deal of entertaining of musicians, with the Shetland fiddler Aly Bain dropping by for his dinner every Wednesday (each week had a different country as a theme).

John’s 40 years of work at Piershill was no picnic and he would sometimes admit that it had been necessary to take the odd catnap during the day, as he had been up all night on calls and was then expected to work all day, and quite possibly much of the following night as well.

Away from work, he had a great love for opera and reading, but it was his family of Annie and their two children, David and Irene, that were always prioritised.

Only two weeks from his death, and deeply aware of his very limited life expectancy, Dr John amazed and worried his friends by announcing that he was to host one last party, for his 80th birthday.

It was an event that rather defined the man, for some were concerned that the party might be tense and even a touch maudlin. In response John confounded his critics by sitting in court at the centre of the occasion welcoming his guests with his customary relaxed kindness and interest in every aspect of their lives.

Later he was seen bouncing several children on his knee whilst patiently hearing out their optimistic expectations for Christmas, and the whole affair was made merry and relaxed by his intermittent chuckle of pure delight. He really was very extraordinary.

He is survived by his wife Annie, his two children and two grandchildren. Henry and Rebecca.