John Gillingham

Brain surgery pioneer and educator

Born: 15 March, 1916, in Dorchester, Dorset.

Died: 3 January, 2010, in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, aged 93.

PROFESSOR Francis John Gillingham, always known as John, was an English-born brain surgeon who spent most of his career in Edinburgh and brought international renown on himself, his adopted city and Edinburgh University for his pioneering work, notably on Parkinson's disease. Under his guidance and eventual leadership, the department of surgical neurology at the university became a centre of excellence, training more than 100 heads of neurosurgery departments in universities and hospitals around the world.

His experience as a medic on the front lines during the Second World War, dealing mostly with bullet wounds to the head, gave him an understanding of, and a fascination with, head injuries which pushed him to become one of the first campaigners for compulsory car seatbelts in the UK. He worked closely with his friend the English GP Dr Kenneth Easton in the campaign.

Gillingham was known worldwide as a leader in what is known as stereotactic neurosurgery, now largely overtaken by computer technology and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, but which was a key breakthrough in brain surgery during the 20th century.

The techniques seem old-fashioned now, involving clamps and bars fixed to the patient's head, but they allowed brain surgeons to use a three-dimensional system of co-ordinates to identify targets for probes that could alleviate tremors or movement disorders.

Gillingham did not invent the technique, first used on primates by Victor Horsley and Robert H Clarke at University College, London, at the dawn of the 20th century and described by them as stereotaxic neurosurgery. But Gillingham, inspired by Edinburgh University professor Norman Dott and visiting Parisian brain surgeon Grard Guiot, became something of a father figure in the field, lecturing all over the world well into his eighties.

He was a relatively new GP in his mid-twenties when he was shocked by the horrors of the Second World War that arrived with each day's newspaper and radio reports, and signed up with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). He found himself first in north Africa and later in Italy, with Montgomery's Eighth Army, part of a surgical field unit that followed the troops close to the front lines. Using tents and a battered old bus as operating theatres, he personally performed thousands of life-saving operations on British soldiers from El Alamein in Egypt to Monte Cassino in Italy and through to Ancona and the closing days of the war. On average, he reckoned he treated 30 soldiers a day for bullet wounds, many to the head.

Already fascinated by the human brain, he kept meticulous notes in three dimensions on how bullets entered, traversed and often exited soldiers' brains, and how this affected recovery or otherwise. It was this that led him, post-war, to focus on stereotactic neurosurgery, and particularly its use to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Francis John Gillingham was born in Dorchester in 1916 to a family traditionally from the village of Upwey in Dorset's Wey valley. An only son, he attended Dorchester's Thomas Hardye School before studying medicine at the St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College in London, where he graduated Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB, BS) in 1939.

After completing his training at St Bart's and at the Lord Mayor Treloar Hospital for disabled children in Alton, Hampshire, Gillingham enlisted in the RAMC to aid the war effort. Immediately after returning from Italy in 1945, he married Irene "Judy" Jude from Fakenham, Norfolk, and returned to work at St Bart's, putting his knowledge of brain injuries to use as a neurosurgeon.

In 1950, Gillingham was appointed consultant neurosurgeon in the department of surgical neurology at Edinburgh University, first serving under and later taking over from Prof Dott as director of the department. He also became senior lecturer in surgical neurology at the university and, in 1963, professor in the same subject. He was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1955, was appointed to the council of the college in 1968 and became president of the Royal College in 1980.

Gillingham hit newspaper headlines in 1961 when he treated, in Edinburgh, the leading Sri Lankan politician SJV Chelvanayakam, a father figure to the island's Tamil people and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, who was suffering from Parkinson's. The operation was considered a success and Chelvanayakam lived for another 16 years – until the age of 79.

Gillingham was also credited with setting up possibly the first "telemedicine" link between hospitals, long before the era of e-mail or mobile phones. With the help of Scottish Television (STV), he set up a dedicated landline phone link between the two hospitals where he worked – Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and the city's Western General. This allowed him and his team to monitor head trauma patients in both hospitals, and rush by road between the two as needs be. His colleagues said many lives were saved as a result.

From 1966 until his retirement in 1981, Gillingham was consultant neurologist to the British army in Scotland. Thereafter, he remained as busy as ever, travelling and lecturing all over the world as an honorary member of neurosurgeons' societies in the United States, France, Spain and elsewhere, and serving as honorary president of the World Federation of Neurological Societies.

From 1983-85, he was professor of surgical neurology at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was appointed CBE in the Queen's New Year awards of 1982. Last year, already turned 93, he was present to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Society of British Neurosurgeons at Magdalen College, Oxford, making his acceptance speech from his wheelchair.

He wrote many books, papers and articles during his lifetime, notably Advances in Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery (1981).

Gillingham remained in Edinburgh after his retirement and three of his four sons were born in the city. He had lived first in Easter Park House beside Bruntsfield Links and later in Boraston House, by Ravelston golf course, although he was the first to admit neither location improved his handicap. He also had a home in the village of Jesus Pobre on Spain's Costa Blanca.

There and in Scotland, he was a passionate sailor, sharing a Dragon keelboat based at Granton Harbour marina on the Firth of Forth, sailing an Enterprise from Kippford on the Solway Firth and messing about in his small yacht, Persephone, at the nautical club in Javea, near his Spanish home. He felt privileged on several occasions to race Bluebottle, the famous Dragon owned by Prince Philip, off the southern English coast. Outside of sailing, gardening was his passion, especially growing cacti.

Prof Gillingham is survived by his wife and sons Tim, Simon and Adam. His eldest son, Jeremy, and Jeremy's wife, Anni, both GPs in Perth, died in an avalanche while skiing in the French Alps in 1994.

A memorial service for Prof Gillingham will take place at Cramond Kirk at noon on 15 March.