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BMJ. 2007 April 21; 334(7598): 857.
PMCID: PMC1853175

John Neilson

John Neilson made a unique contribution to James Robertson Justice's memorable portrayal of the “irascible sawbones” Sir Lancelot Sprat in the “Doctor” comedy films. Back in the 1950s, Neilson received a phone call from a colleague in Dumfries, telling him he had a weekend guest, an actor, who was likely to play a doctor in the near future. He wanted to meet a surgeon to discuss his work routine, and if possible, see inside an operating theatre. Neilson happily obliged. Robertson Justice later phoned Neilson to thank him for his “briefing,” which, he said, had been extremely helpful for his film role. However the difference could not have been more marked between the real surgeon and the bombastic fictional character.

John Neilson was widely acknowledged as a mild mannered, gentle man who always had the time to help, advise, and train his junior staff at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, where he was appointed as a locum for three weeks in 1942 and stayed for more than 30 years. As the medical director he seized the opportunity to rebuild the old infirmary, into the new present day DGRI.

After a Glasgow graduation in 1937 ( MB ChB), his career led him to be a casualty officer at Bolingbrooke Hospital in London, then to Hackney LCC as the medical officer, as well as house physician at Princess Louise Hospital, Kensington, before arriving in Dumfries in 1942. His surgical career began at a time when specialties were just taking off, and as a general surgeon he performed a wide range of procedures—including the application of leeches, a successful leg amputation using refrigeration with ice cubes instead of a general anaesthetic. He also took part in research, notably into perforated peptic ulcers, on which he published a paper.

He was a lifelong supporter of St Andrew's Ambulance Association and was honorary president of the Dumfries and Galloway branch, which, after 70 years of voluntary service awarded him its medal of honour in 2006.

His other interests included the Dumfries Guild of Players, amateur drama group, where he remained their president, the local musical and operatic society, as well as the Antiquarian Society. He remained sprightly until the end, swimming most mornings at the local health club.

He is survived by his second wife, Elise, and a son and two daughters from his first marriage.


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