Obituary for Emeritus Professor Sir John Scott KBE FRSNZ

20 October 2015
Image of Emeritus Professor Sir John Scott
Emeritus Professor Sir John Scott

Haere rā Emeritus Professor Sir John Scott.

A giant Kauri has fallen in Tane’s forest.  Those who have grown up and flourished in the shade and protection of that Kauri must now take up that space as best they can  - even so, when someone walks in the forest and sees the Sky Father Ranginui through the hole in the canopy and asks, who stood here?, the answer will be, John Scott, a giant among mortals and a man much admired and loved.

Professor Sir John Scott meant much to many people – his intellect and humility, and compassion, brought comfort to his patients and shaped not only his family and friends, but also a whole generation of doctors.  His knighthood, for services to medicine, could just have easily been for services to his community.  An account of his life does little justice to the man.

(Philip) John Scott was born in Auckland (Mt Eden) in 1931, grew up for a while in Palmerston North, and then attended Mt Albert Grammar School.  He had some early misfortunes (e.g., losing an eye), but always recalled his childhood and especially his relationship with his parents very favourably. There is no doubt that his father had a significant influence on him and the strong moral character that underpinned so much of what he did.  His steadfastness and courage during a subsequent and nasty cancer therapy scandal many years later at Auckland Hospital says a great deal about his integrity and strength of character.

He studied at Auckland University College for a year (1949), before becoming a medical student at the University of Otago (MB ChB 1955).  He took a year off to complete a BMedSc degree (1953), which really heralded the beginning of his life as a medical researcher and academic.  As was true for many physicians of his generation, he not only undertook hospital work in Auckland after graduating, but also did some time in general practice in St Heliers, before departing with his beloved family to the United Kingdom.  John was a caring husband and loving father (and grandfather), and loyal friend.

In England, John worked first at the Postgraduate Medical School of London at Hammersmith Hospital, where he obtained Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP). He followed this with metabolic studies (MD thesis titled: “Studies on serum beta lipoproteins in health and disease”) at the University of Birmingham to gain a doctorate in medicine (MD)(1962).

John returned to Auckland at the invitation of Sir Douglas Robb to help establish a medical school in Auckland. He took up the second Isaacs Memorial Scholarship in the academic medical unit (Robin Irvine was the first). He continued his scientific research on lipids and arterial pathophysiology (and diabetes), both clinically, and in vivo and in vitro, using the resources at DSIR at Mt Albert, and at Greenlane and Middlemore Hospitals.

Medical students at the University of Auckland remember John as a revered and highly respected Professor of Medicine – he was one of three eminent physician-teachers of the day with the same surname. Many of those students are also thankful to John, and another stalwart of the early days of Auckland Medical School, Graham White, for their mentorship and wise counsel.

John became the Head of the Department of Medicine (1979–1987); following that period, in yet another demonstration of his civic-mindedness and sense of service, he elected not to put himself forward as a candidate for Dean, but rather spent the next 10 years developing and nurturing an academic group at Middlemore Hospital. His liaison there with Lester Levy, Dave Clark, and with surgical colleagues such as Harley Gray, created a superb academic environment and a legacy that is being honoured to this day through the leadership of Andrew Hill.

John’s commitments extended well beyond the hospital and the medical school. He was pivotal in the growth of the Medical Protection Society in New Zealand (and remained active in medico-legal issues until and indeed after his retirement), and was a founding member of the Auckland Medical History Society (serving as President in 1976). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1987 and was President of the Society from 1997 to 2000. This period of time in New Zealand included genetic engineering and other high-profile controversies - and again, John demonstrated consistent intelligence- and values-based leadership. During a subsequent government review of an issue that also had significant sensitivity, and that generated some regrettable behavior from some of his colleagues and others, his manner, skills and knowledge, and what he had learnt from the earlier cancer scandal and during his time as President of the Royal Society, served the national purpose, well.

He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to medicine in 1988 (New Years Honours List). Among his many other awards and appointments, he was also a Fellow the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and on retiring from the University of Auckland in 1996, was granted the title of Professor Emeritus.  

His former students and colleagues were not deeply respectful of his retirement and many modern leaders at the School of Medicine relied very heavily on John, and another now emeritus professor, Ian Simpson.

So, little surprise then that it is difficult to summarise such a person in anything approaching a pithy manner. You can write volumes about his nose for a conspiracy or scandal, and another about his dogged determination to consequently pursue a just outcome – no doubt some of that history will become public but sadly much of it will be buried with John. Another volume could concentrate on his research and clinical activities, and yet another on John as teacher and mentor. He was a role model of a true clinician leader; a rare beast then and sadly still now.  It is a pity that his illness precluded him from completing some of his projects, and he became increasingly frustrated by the nature of his terminal illnesses. Throughout all of it however, he remained true to his principles.

Haere rā, Emeritus Professor Sir John Scott, one of the true champions of medicine.


Professor Des Gorman MD PhD

Professor of Medicine,

The University of Auckland