Obituary: Professor Dan Young, paediatrician

Professor Dan Young. Picture: Submitted
Professor Dan Young. Picture: Submitted
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Born: 22 November, 1932 in Skipness, Argyll. Died: 20 October, 2013, in Glasgow, aged 80

COUNTLESS patients all over the world had their lives saved or immeasurably enhanced through the work of Scots paediatric surgeon Dan Young.

He was inspired to specialise in the field following his experiences as a student in the 1950s when he witnessed the multiple health problems and high death rate of babies born with congenital defects.

Passionate about striving to give them the best chance in life, he went on to play a key role in ground-breaking neo-natal surgery and to develop a department and a reputation renowned internationally.

Today, the skills and expertise he taught young surgeons from all continents continue to benefit patients from America to Europe and Australasia and, in recognition of his significant contribution, the neonatal surgical unit where he worked and a Scottish Spina Bifida support centre both bear his name.

Astute, approachable and egalitarian, he enjoyed an almost celebrity-like status among patients and professionals alike as he helped to put paediatric surgery on the map – an achievement that had its roots in rural North Lanarkshire.

Although born in Skipness, Argyll, he grew up on Lower Carbarns Farm, Netherton, where his father farmed just outside Wishaw. He was educated at Netherton Public School, then Wishaw Academy and Wishaw High School before embarking on a medical degree at Glasgow University in 1950.

While still studying, he filled in as a locum resident on both the medical and surgical side, working at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow where he first came across the many difficulties faced by newborn babies suffering 
congenital disorders. At that time, surgeons were able to help far fewer such infants and he determined to make the specialty his career.

After graduating in 1956, he did his national service in Ghana on a special short service commission to the Ghanaian government, where most of his time was spent in charge of the medical reception station at a recruiting centre in Kumasi.

That led to him gaining a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 1959 before returning to Glasgow to become an assistant lecturer in the university’s physiology department. From 1961-64, he was a registrar in surgery, during which time he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

He then moved to the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street, London, where he was a senior registrar and resident assistant surgeon.

From 1967-69, he was a senior lecturer in paediatric surgery at London’s Institute of Child Health and honorary consultant surgeon at Great Ormond Street and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney.

Then in the autumn of 1969 he returned north once more, this time as head of the department of surgical paediatrics at Glasgow University, based at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Two years later, the hospital’s neonatal surgical unit, then a state-of-the-art facility, was established at Yorkhill and in 1972 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Glasgow.

He dealt with an enormous range of conditions, including deformities such as cleft lip and palate, in a career that embraced many advances in his specialty. In the 1960s and 70s, he was involved in the introduction of the first shunts to control hydrocephalus in newborns, a procedure that transformed the life expectancy of significant numbers of babies born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus.

Not only did Young develop a fine paediatric surgery department, but he was also an excellent educator and role model, training many surgeons from all over the world, contributions marked by the re-naming of the facility as the Dan Young Neonatal Surgical Unit in 1991. Since its inception it has cared for more than 15,000 newborn babies requiring surgery.

He was appointed Glasgow University’s first professor of surgical paediatrics in 1992 and although he stepped down from the role and retired from clinical practice six years later, he remained an influential emeritus professor, regularly teaching students at the bedside for another decade and mentoring numerous young surgeons.

Young, who was a fellow of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, had also been president of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons and the British Society for the History of Paediatrics and Child Health, holding the latter post until recently.

And over his 50-year career, his expertise had been sought by innumerable committees and organisations in Scotland, the UK and across the globe. He helped to establish the specialty of paediatric surgery in various countries and was honoured with a doctorate from the University of Wroclaw for his contribution in Poland and internationally. In addition, he was an honorary member of associations of paediatric surgeons in Hungary, Egypt, South Africa and America, as well as a visiting lecturer to Japanese and Australasian organisations.

At home, during the 1980s he chaired the committee that oversaw the establishment of the Intercollegiate FRCS in paediatric surgery and was an examiner in all the fellowship and membership examinations of the British Royal Colleges of Surgeons for more than 30 years.

He was the British editor of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery for 17 years and had his own impressive bibliography, contributing to and writing numerous papers and books, including: A History of Surgical Paediatrics; Baby Surgery and Children’s Medicine and Surgery.

Of his professional achievements, one of which he was most proud was the award of the Denis Browne gold medal, bestowed for outstanding contribution to the field and in memory of the Great Ormond Street surgeon regarded as the father of paediatric surgery in the UK.

Beyond the demands of his academic and clinical commitments, Young also supported the Scottish Spina Bifida Association, holding the position of honorary president for 30 years with what chief executive Andrew Wynd described as quiet and unassuming passion.

“Dan was not just an outstanding and compassionate paediatric surgeon, but a warm and caring man who found no greater joy in life but to cradle a little child in his arms, with the express intent of doing all he could to ensure that ‘his children’ would have the very best chance in life, despite their often complex and lifelong disabilities.

“In 2007, a new, purpose-built National Family Support Centre was opened. All who were pivotal in its development never questioned for a moment what the building should be called, although Dan seemed strangely bemused by the announcement that The Dan Young Building was to be a lasting reality of his dedication to the cause.”

It was a mark of an exceptional man that he never forgot or was forgotten by those who crossed his path – be it his patients and their families, some of whom he kept in touch with for years, his peers who continued to visit him 
or his colleagues, including the hospital porter he had worked alongside as a student and 
with whom he still enjoyed catching up.

Predeceased by his wife Nan and grandson Euan, he is survived by his daughter Rhoda, son Kenneth and five grandchildren.