Professor of Surgery Birmingham University (b 1927; q Birmingham 1950; MD, FRCS, FACS), d 14 October 2015.
John Alexander-Williams gained his reputation as world class surgeon and was highly respected as a leading authority on diseases of the gut. His masterly ability in the operating theatre and his brilliance as an orator and teacher led to numerous appointments as visiting professor in academic departments of surgery throughout the world. He delivered scores of lectures and scientific presentations. Junior surgeons and research fellows from around the world flocked to work with him in the Department of Surgery at Birmingham General Hospital.
Alexander-Williams w as attracted to any aspect of disease connected to the gastrointestinal tract. He was part of the team of researchers who initially linked the bacterium Clostridium difficile to a life threatening infection of the large bowel.
He gained respect not only for his skill with the scalpel, but also with his appreciation of knowing when discretion would be better for the patient and operating might be harmful. His early work on Crohn’s disease was particularly groundbreaking, after he proved that conservative treatment was often superior to radical resection of the gut and lymph nodes.
Despite his reputation and standing, he was capable of entertaining self reflection. He would repeatedly liken his career progression, which ultimately led him to develop internationally recognised surgical techniques for the treatment of diseases of the colon and rectum, to the passage of food through the gut.
His earliest work focused on the rise and fall of the selective cutting of the nerve supply to the stomach in patients with ulcers. However, much to his chagrin, the operation—known as a highly selective vagotomy—became redundant soon after he had perfected the technique, with the discovery of effective drug treatments. In a way that was typical of his innovative adaptability, he turned his attention to diseases affecting other parts lower down the gut.
Publications on the causes and treatment of piles earned him an international reputation, and his description of the “young executive tight anus syndrome,” which affected a group of people prone to the affliction, illustrated his more unconventional spirit and fearless approach to delicate situations and conditions.
John Alexander-Williams was born in Dudley. His parents were Herbert, a draftsman and newspaper distributor, and Nora.
He attended Dudley Grammar School and Sebright School in Wolverley, where he was head boy in 1944.
In 1945 he went to medical school at Birmingham University, showing early promise as a skilful operator when he was awarded the junior prize for surgery in 1948. He was an active member of the university’s dramatic society and even auditioned—albeit unsuccessfully—at the BBC for a part in the long running Radio 4 soap opera The Archers.
He was elected president of the British Society of Gastroenterology for the 50th anniversary year in 1986. He was appointed professor of surgery at Birmingham University in 1989 and remained in post until 1992, having been a consultant surgeon at the city’s general hospital for nearly three decades.
He was Hunterian professor at the Royal College of Surgeons on two occasions.
His immense energy and enjoyment of life spilt over into his love of skiing and gardening. He was also talented in painting, drawing, and, latterly, sculpture. He used to scour the skips of Edgbaston, looking for interesting bits of wood and scrap metal to take back to his workshop to create masterpieces that would then be displayed in his immaculate garden, which was open for charity every year.
In 1950 he married Betty Brain, with whom he had just qualified in medicine. She later was to become a general practitioner before giving up work to look after John and the family.
Betty died after a short illness in March 2014. John leaves five children, two of which continue in medicine.