Obituary: Professor Ken Mason, medical jurisprudence pioneer

Professor Ken Mason. Picture: Contributed
Professor Ken Mason. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 19 December, 1919. Died: 26 January, 2017, aged 97.

Emeritus Professor John Kenyon French Mason, CBE, MD, LLD, FRC Path, FRCPE, FRSE regius professor of forensic medicine, University of Edinburgh and honorary fellow of the School of Law.

Professor John Kenyon (Ken) French Mason, who died on 26 January, 2017 at the age of 97, was the academic grandfather to multiple generations of students and to a new discipline in its own right: medical jurisprudence. This he pioneered in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh with his colleague and friend, Professor Alexander McCall Smith, beginning in the late 1970s. It was, however, to be but the third illustrious career in his lifetime.

Ken Mason was born in Lahore, India (now Pakistan) on 19 December, 1919 while his father was serving in the Royal Air Force. He was educated at Downside School in Somerset and graduated BA in 1939 from Peterhouse College, Cambridge. He then graduated MB (Cambridge) in 1943 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

After serving in the Second World War as squadron medical officer in the Royal Air Force, Ken Mason’s first career culminated in his promotion to group captain and director of the Royal Air Force’s aviation and forensic pathology department. He was at the forefront of aviation medicine for many years. This led in 1973 to the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division) for services to forensic pathology of aircraft accidents.

His second career was as regius professor of forensic medicine at the University of Edinburgh (1973-1985). During these years, he embarked on an unrivalled publication record, including Pathology of Trauma (three editions), Forensic Medicine for Lawyers (ultimately in its sixth edition), and Law & Medical Ethics (now in its tenth edition and the longest-standing medical law textbook in the UK.

Ken’s third career was as an honorary fellow in Edinburgh Law School (1985-2017). Here he carved out a new field of inquiry – medical jurisprudence – that required considerable sensitivity in addressing controversial topics at the edges of medicine, law and ethics. Ken never faltered in the task, even when the subject matter would challenge his own Roman Catholic faith. In the preface to his book, The Troubled Pregnancy (2007), he wrote with typical humility: “I must thank Cambridge University Press for giving me the long-sought opportunity to publish under the auspices of my alma mater. I hope that the book does them justice.” It most certainly did. His publications repeatedly broke new ground in areas where the law was silent or in serious need of deep critical thinking. He never lost his boundless mental agility.

Ken Mason was an inspiring teacher and mentor to students and colleagues too numerous to mention. He was unfailing in his dedication to his students and insatiable in his curiosity to hear alternative points of view. On more than one occasion, he declared himself a feminist!

Ken was embraced wholeheartedly by the Edinburgh Law School community. His position as umpire of the school’s annual cricket match was unassailable, and he was often the inspiration for official (and unofficial) parties. His Christmas champagne cocktails were legendary, and gin was never too far from reach.

On 28 February, 1974, Ken Mason delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Edinburgh, entitled “Ambitions for a Motley Coat.” He was inspired to take this title by his role as Jacques some 40 years earlier in a school production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He offered this quote:

“And in his brain,

which is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage,

he has strange places crammed with observation,

the which he vents in mangle form.

“Oh!” said Jacques, “Oh! that I were a fool; I am ambitious for a motley coat.”

By way of explanation, Ken talked of his ambitions for his, then, new role. He spoke of his desire to transform “...the rather monochrome, unvarying cloth of traditional forensic medicine into...a fresh, multi-coloured and multi-directional motley coat of community service, resting on a broad base of service to the community in general and the police in particular, fed intellectually by contact with students of many disciplines and extending arms which genuinely welcome and are anxious to provide a full service of co-operation.” This indefatigable spirit never left him.

Throughout his careers, Ken Mason was the recipient of numerous awards in both the UK and US, including the J.F. Lederer Award for Aircraft Safety, the Swiney Prize in Jurisprudence, and fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 2005, Edinburgh Law School honoured him with an LLD degree. In the laureation, Professor Alexander McCall Smith had this to say: “Joining the ranks of assenters to this degree there will be very many not necessarily illustrious persons, but ordinary men and women, people whom he has helped. For remember that he is a forensic pathologist and that, quietly and unsung, he has taken on the cause of many people who have struggled to assert their innocence and whom he has helped to do so. Those people, were they here today, would applaud, I suspect, with all their heart.”

For those of us who remain, we applaud and celebrate the life and legacy of John Kenyon Mason. We offer him our unending respect and love.

Ken is survived by Ian and Paul, his sons from his marriage to Betty, who died in 1977; by two grandchildren and three great grandchildren, and by his longtime companion, Diana.

GRAEME LAURIE