Obituary: Professor John Raymond Greening, BSc, PhD, DSc, FInst P, FRSE

Professor John Greening: Noted scientist whose enthusiasm for medical physics proved unstoppably infectious

Professor John Greening: Noted scientist whose enthusiasm for medical physics proved unstoppably infectious

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Born: 9 February, 1922, in Richmond, Surrey. Died: 7 March, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 93

JOHN Greening was educated at the Vineyard and the County schools in Richmond. In 1940 he started work at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Teddington, Middlesex, which was heavily involved in the war effort. He worked in the Aeronautics Department, where he was to meet his future wife, Audrey.

Recognising his need for further qualifications, he attended evening classes at Battersea Polytechnic to study for a London University degree in physics. He and his friend, Peter Tothill, cycled the 13 miles there and back, but the Blitz made life very difficult. At its height the nominal three evenings a week was cut to Saturday afternoons only. When it was threatened that the course would have to be extended to six years instead of five, due to insufficient practical work, John and Peter devised their own course of experiments, to be carried out during lunch hours at the NPL.

This achieved the desired result and also demonstrated to them that physics can be fun. John graduated in 1945 with first-class honours, unprecedented for part-time study. His great regret during the war was that the Official Secrets Act precluded him telling his father, an army veteran of the Boer and First World wars, what he was doing and his father took a dim view of John not joining the services.

After the war John decided he wished to apply his physics in a peaceful and healing manner and entered medical physics, a newly developing field of science. He was appointed as an assistant physicist at Westminster Hospital in 1946, and in the same year he married Audrey, the love of his life.

John was an enthusiast for research and he devised his own programme in radiation dosimetry, which often involved trips to London’s Tottenham Court Road to buy materials to build his own research equipment. This led to a PhD at the University of London. Promotion then came with a post of senior physicist at St George’s Hospital.

During this period he became active with the professional body, the Hospital Physicists Association. His role on the executive committee involved negotiating with the employers about salaries, a job that would be performed these days by a trade union official. He carried out this demanding job successfully. Later he was elected as president of the association. During this period also, John and Audrey’s two sons were born.

Medical physics had been slow to develop in Edinburgh. There was little more than a couple of physicists in radiotherapy. It was decided to set up a new Department of Medical Physics, funded and administered jointly by the University of Edinburgh and the then South-East Scotland Regional Hospital Board. In 1957 John was appointed to lead this venture and to expand its scope. Appointments were made to head new sections of electronics and radioisotope medicine.

The Radiotherapy Department had recently moved to the Western General Hospital, and the physicists there were included in the new Department of Medical Physics. The first PhD student was recruited.

A new building for the Department of Medical Physics opened in 1962 in the Royal Infirmary and allowed rapid expansion of the activities of the department.

The university connection and the proximity of clinical departments fostered a commitment to research. John led the way in recruiting PhD and MSc students, and many were supported, with some later joining the department as it expanded. Many others found medical physics jobs elsewhere, at least two subsequently becoming professors.

John enthusiastically facilitated research by the department staff. The university connection involved running courses on radioisotopes and lectures for budding radiographers and radiologists. John led the department in providing radiation protection, applications of radioisotopes, and the development of ultrasound, nuclear medicine scanning, computing, and magnetic resonance imaging.

The joint university and health service funding of the department was undoubtedly beneficial, but did sometimes pose problems and needed John’s skill and diplomacy to resolve, particularly in times of financial pressure.

His standing was recognised locally by promotion from Reader to Professor and election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His skills were recognised internationally and he served for over 15 years on the International Commission on Radiation Units, contributing to its many important publications. His knowledge on radiation resulted in his being invited to serve on the UK Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, a role he engaged from the inception of the committee in 1979 until 1989, including a period of chairmanship.

John had been a keen cricketer as a fast bowler with a distinctive arm swinging action, but at the age of 40 he switched to golf. He joined the Mortonhall Golf Club where he made many friends. He played until he was 88, applying his scientific approach in analysing his game so that he minimised wasted shots! His earlier engineering skills of making research equipment were also applied and he made his own putter, which he used to excellent effect.

He retired in 1986, but still found his lecturing skills in demand with a very popular talk on the physics of golf, which left many wondering how it was possible to strike a golf ball down the fairway. He pursued other hobbies of photography, chess, and the then new world of computing. He wrote many programmes for his early BBC computer and made many friends through this medium.

In later years John and Audrey had health problems from time to time, but these were faced with fortitude. When Audrey became very immobile John looked after her devotedly, until her death in April 2014. They had been together for 72 years and married for 68 years.

John took much pleasure in his family, welcoming their news and visits and taking keen interest in their activities and successes. In his 93rd year he achieved an ambition of playing football in his back garden with his great-grandchildren, where he had similarly played with his sons and his grandsons in earlier years.

John is survived by his sons Andrew and Richard, daughter-in-law Rosemary, grandsons Neil and Robert and great-grandchildren Esme, Oliver and Alastair.

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