Obituary: Professor John Forfar, paediatrician

Born: 16 November, 1916, in Glasgow. Died: 14 August, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 96

Professor John Oldroyd Forfar, Professor of Child Life and Health at Edinburgh University. Picture: Contributed
Professor John Oldroyd Forfar, Professor of Child Life and Health at Edinburgh University. Picture: Contributed

A son of the manse, John Oldroyd Forfar was educated at Perth Academy and the University of St Andrews, where he qualified in medicine in 1941. His undergraduate career was distinguished by an intercalated BSc, by notable success in the Officers Training Corps, on the cricket field, and in meeting Isobel Fernback, his future wife and lifelong companion.

After the war, he completed his training in the medicine of childhood and was appointed consultant paediatrician at Dundee Royal Infirmary and senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews. In 1950, he moved to Edinburgh with consultant responsibility for children and the newborn at the Eastern General, Leith and Western General Hospitals and providing a visiting service to Fife.

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In spite of his busy clinical workload, he made time for research and to publish studies, notably on infection of the newborn. In 1958, he was awarded an MD with commendation from the University of St Andrews. This dedication to research and writing proved to be the beginning of an outstanding academic career in paediatrics.

In 1964, he was appointed to the Edward Clark Chair as Professor of Child Life and Health in the University of Edinburgh, the first of its kind in Britain. He remained in post until 1982 when he was awarded Emeritus status, which he told us translated as “without merit”.

In his inaugural lecture, he challenged the status of childrens hospitals which were generally given low priority in overall health care, and made an emphatic case for specialisation within paediatrics. In the following 20 years, many dedicated specialty and sub-specialty services for children in and out of hospitals were developed with his support.

He took an active part and special pride in the establishment, in 1968, and development of the Neonatal Special Care Unit in the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion of the Royal Infirmary, now in the new Royal Infirmary. With Sir John Brotherston and Professor JW Farquhar, he established the Edinburgh School of Community Paediatrics.

As a visiting examiner to the medical school in Riyadh, he noted the lack of experience of many doctors active in children’s’ services in Saudi Arabia. With the Ministry of Health there, he initiated a postgraduate diploma course supported by staff from the UK. In this era, the standard reference was the American textbook, Nelson’s Pediatrics. Professor Forfar, with Professor Gavin Arneil from Glasgow, saw the opportunity for a British equivalent and in 1973 this major contribution to the paediatric literature, Textbook of Paediatrics, subsequently always known as Forfar and Arneil, was launched. This first edition of more than 2,000 pages was a multi-author work with large sections contributed by the two editors and was an instant and lasting success with its seventh edition being published in 2008.

His published papers, which numbered over 150, were on a wide variety of topics such as the effects of drugs on the foetus and newborn, disturbances of mineral metabolism ranging from idiopathic hypercalcaemia to hypocalcaemia and vitamin D deficiency in the neonate and child, provision of heath services for children and fostering and adoption. He was for many years involved with the work of fostering and adoption agencies and societies caring for children with disabilities and with the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children.

Professor Forfar’s stature within paediatrics was recognised by honorary awards including fellowships or honorary memberships of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, London, Glasgow and Ireland, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health of the UK, the American College of Nutrition, the Australian College of Paediatrics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He served on several key committees of the British Paediatric Association (BPA) and was elected president in 1985. During his three-year tenure of this office, he was active in negotiations which eventually led to the creation of the new independent Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

He was awarded the James Spence Medal of the BPA, its highest award, in 1983 and the Presidential Medal of the RCPCH in 2003. With Anthony Jackson and Bernard Laurance, he wrote The British Paediatric Association 1928-1988. He was a founder member and later honorary member of the Neonatal Society, president of the Scottish Paediatric Society from 1973-75 and president of the UK Association of Clinical Professors and Heads of Paediatric Departments from 1980-83.

He was a member of the UK Joint Committee on Higher Medical Training between 1980-88 and an elected member of the General Medical Council (GMC) from 1984-86 and was a member of the DHSS Committee on Medical Aspects of Food (COMA) Panel on Child Nutrition from 1972-87. He was chairman of the Medical Group of British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering from 1967-77.

He often paddled often round the Bass Rock from his cottage in Canty Bay, and canoed the length of the Tay and the Spey; he had a pilot’s licence, drove a hand-built Lotus and though modestly listing one of his interests as “hill walking”, he had been up Mont Blanc, allegedly travelling there in a Mini converted into a camper van.

During his working years, his colleagues were largely unaware of his military career as he never talked about it. The story of his part in the Second World War emerged somewhat belatedly. He had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1942 and undertook Commando training before placement as Medical Officer to 47 Commando Royal Marines. On D-Day they landed in Normandy with the objective of taking Port-en-Bessin. The battle was won after intense fighting with major loss of life. John Forfar was mentioned in despatches.

In November 1944, the commandos were involved in the assault on Walcheren, a strategic objective in opening up access to Antwerp. Eisenhower described the capture of Walcheren as “one of the most gallant and aggressive actions of the war”.

John Forfar was awarded an Immediate Military Cross. The citation summary reads: “Throughout the whole of the first three days of the battle for Walcheren, when 82 ranks were wounded, many of whom were recovered by this officer personally with the greatest heroism, the courage and devotion to duty of this officer were above praise.”

Some of these actions were first published in 1994, 1995 and 1998 in the Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh then in greater detail in 2001 in his book From Omaha to the Scheldt: The Story of 47 Royal Marine Commando, which won the Royal Marine Historical Society Award in 2005. A second edition containing some extra material including information on Pluto (Pipeline Under The Ocean) was published in 2013. A further abbreviated account, From Gold to Omaha – The Battle for Port-en-Bessin 6-8 June 1944 was published in 2009 in French and English. In 2009 a walkway was named “Allée Professeur John Forfar” in recognition of his actions and his subsequent promotion of this location and the battle at the core of D-Day.

Further contributions to the literature on this subject were made by John Forfar in a volume entitled Amphibious Assault; Manoeuvre from the Sea, edited by Tristan Loverling and published in 2007. He wrote two of the chapters.

John Forfar continued an active association with the forces, lecturing at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, participating in the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines and supporting the 47 Commando and the Normandy Veterans Associations.

He had a great sense of humour, particularly for the whimsical side of everyday life. He was a loyal friend to many, supportive of colleagues and staff at all levels, and good at getting to know people, remembering names and circumstances.

He showed great fortitude when faced with the challenge of family illness and loss, of which he had more than his fair share. Through many difficult times, his resilience and determination was laced with compassion and humanity, even for the enemy on D-Day. In the final chapter of his life, he moved to a care home with Isobel, whose last days he shared. Fiercely independent, he returned to his beloved flat in Ravelston, only to fall and fracture his odontoid. The neck brace, fitted for immobilisation, was discovered on his lap while he investigated how the Velcro operated. He always wanted to know how things worked.

He died peacefully, having lived life to the full, and sometimes, on the edge. He was justly very proud of his family, all high achievers. He is survived by his sons, David and Colin, and his daughter, Joan, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild and a host of friends privileged to have known him.