Obituary: Rev Dr John Wilkinson (Jack), physician

BORN: 2 November, 1918, in Derby. Died: 17 January, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 96

A man of deep personal faith who spent almost 30 years as a missionary doctor in Africa. Picture: Contributed
A man of deep personal faith who spent almost 30 years as a missionary doctor in Africa. Picture: Contributed
A man of deep personal faith who spent almost 30 years as a missionary doctor in Africa. Picture: Contributed

Rev Dr John Wilkinson (Jack), physician, public health specialist, and minister of the Church of Scotland, died peacefully on Saturday, 17 January, 2015, aged 96 in Marian House Care Home.

Born in Derby in 1918, Jack grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, attending the local Church of Scotland church. There, through the minister, Rev Dr Horace Philp, a former missionary doctor in Kenya, he came to faith and found his calling to be a missionary doctor.

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Jack studied medicine at Edinburgh, sponsored by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (EMMS), whose history he later wrote under the title of The Coogate Doctors while a director of the EMMS. He graduated MB ChB in July 1941. However, he felt called to the ordained ministry and so began a divinity course at New College.

In 1942, he was commissioned as a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps and served with the 8th Army in North Africa and Italy. This gave him a wide experience of trauma surgery, clinical medicine and medical administration. In 1945 Jack did a second year at New College, but only completed his theology degree in 1961.

On a trip to Iona for prospective mission candidates, he met Jean Ewan who was preparing to go to Kenya to teach, and who went there six months ahead of him.

In September 1946, Jack was posted to Tumutumu hospital,in central Kenya, where Jean was also working. A year later she moved to Kikuyu to start the first girls secondary school for Kenyans, and Jack was moved to Kikuyu hospital a few months later. They married in 1949.

Jack was relief doctor to the church hospitals of Tumutumu, Kikuyu and Chogoria, and rotated between them to cover the leave of their medical superintendents. For 13 years Jack and Jean moved house every single year. He was known as “Dr Kamwana” – “the young doctor”.

As the only doctor, he had to cope with any medical, surgical, obstetric or paediatric problem that came to the hospital, but his preferred area was medicine. He still found time to study the disease onyalai, common in the area at the time, research that gained him the degree Doctor of Medicine from Edinburgh University in 1956.

He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1972.

He also became Clerk to the Overseas Presbytery of Kenya, which gave him considerable ­experience of the problems of mission hospital management and church administration.

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He worked in Chogoria hospital 1961-65 (he later wrote the history in The Story of Chogoria) and Kikuyu hospital 1966-75. During this period he developed the medical services including setting up a number of satellite clinics. He was foundation chairman of the Protestant Churches Medical Association of Kenya for 13 years, helping to co-ordinate the medical work of the different organisations. In this role he worked closely with the Ministry of Health.

In his quiet way he was an explorer. On honeymoon, he and Jean borrowed a car and drove to Tanganyika – now part of Tanzania – to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Later with three small children, and Jean’s sister Margaret, they made an expedition to northern Uganda – six in a Ford Prefect!

Jack travelled widely in Kenya and East Africa and made use of journeys between Kenya and UK to visit historical sites.

In 1975 he and Jean returned to Edinburgh, after almost 30 years in Kenya.

Jack worked as a community medicine specialist with the Lothian Health Board 1975-88. He took a particular interest in the health needs of the homeless, linking back to his experiences as a medical student working in the deprivation of the Cowgate. He became a Member of the Faculty of Community Medicine in 1979. He was also a member of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, whose meetings he attended faithfully as long as he was able.

He was involved with Dr Derek Doyle in the setting up of St Columba’s Hospice in Edinburgh in 1977. He was the first chairman of its professional advisory committee and later became vice-president of the hospice. He was also a clinical teacher at Edinburgh University Faculty of Medicine. He became a medical adviser to the Church of Scotland Board of World Mission and continued to serve the Church through membership of relevant advisory bodies,

Jack was a meticulous writer, enjoying the background research. He had a special interest in the interface between medicine and theology, writing about the healing of the body and the healing of the soul.

This resulted in the publication of two scholarly volumes on Christian Ethics in Health Care and The Bible and Healing: A Medical and Theological Commentary, which other scholars still use as a resource.

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Jack knew his own mind and would speak up when required, in his distinctively deep voice. He was intellectually rigorous, highly disciplined and well organised. His faith was deep and real and carried him through life. He was a shy man and did not find small talk easy, although he had a wry sense of humour. Jack loved facts and studied and read widely.

His interest in books started young and he still had some he had bought from barrows as a schoolboy in Newcastle. He spent many happy hours browsing in second-hand bookshops.

He was a practical man of necessity and his experience of living on a low income meant he was always careful to repair and reuse things. He enjoyed travel and natural history and he developed an interest in ­astronomy.

When Jean’s health deteriorated, he nursed her until she died in 2008, with support from family and carers. They were married for 59 years.

Fifteen months ago he went in to Marian House Care Home, and was cared for there until his death. His first great-grandchild was born two weeks before he died.